The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: We Are All Made of Plastic

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a swirling patch of water pollution twice the size of Texas comprised mostly of plastic bags, plastic water bottles, and foam take out containers - basically, the detritus of modern life.

Not only is this bad for oceanic ecosystems – marine life often choke and die as a result of this stuff - but because humans and ecosystems are inherently intertwined (though we try to pretend otherwise), it also hurts us. The most obvious way is that fish eat the plastic, we eat the fish that ate the plastic, and we get exposed to persistent organic toxins such as PCB's, DDT and other chemicals that are known as human carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

Altogether, this would be bad enough if we were engaging in this form of water pollution out of need, but mostly it’s out of some vague sense of convenience. While I’m old enough to remember paper bags, I don’t really remember an era before plastic bottles, or most tellingly take out containers. I find the idea that the foam clamshell containers that we routinely fill with burgers, lo mein, or whatever take out cuisine is a local favorite, once did not exist is mind boggling. In New York, there are plenty of people for whom their kitchens are merely repositories for takeout menus: they live off of the stuff.

Whether or not that’s healthy is another article for another time, but this indirect consumption of stuff – that is the consumption of stuff to hold the stuff we really want is fouling our environment, as the Pacific Ocean patch so horrifically illustrates. It’s important to note, as Fabien Cousteau recently did on Oprah, that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of five oceanic patches.

Do we really need individually wrapped chicken breasts? Is making brownie from mix really such an arduous task that we need to purchase the pre-mixed varieties already placed in a plastic cake pan, ready (once we remove the plastic wrapper) to make the short trip from refrigerator to microwave? Is having exfoliated skin worth the cost of deliberately adding plastic beads to our oceans, rivers, and streams? The dirty little secret of exfoliating cleansers such as Olay Body Wash Plus Spa Exfoliating Ribbons, Dove Gentle Exfoliating Foaming Facial Cleanser and Clean & Clear Daily Pore Cleanser is they get their exfoliating power from tiny plastic non-biodegradeable polyethylene plastic beads that are too small to be screened by most sewage facility treatments. Each time we wash with these products we are effectively dumping plastic directly into our ecosystems.

But your skin looks great, no?

What’s frustrating is there are alternatives. Saint Ives Apricot scrub, for example, gets its exfoliating effect by using finely ground walnut shells. Sunchips has unveiled its line of biodegradable snack bags. Whole Foods has shifted away from plastic takeout containers to brown compostable ones. Admittedly, the containers aren’t perfect: overly wet products leak, but the occasional leaky daal is preferable to being exposed to neurotoxins. We also, however, need to get away from the idea that everything we consume has to be wrapped: I don’t understand why I need to take a bunch of carrots connected with a twist tie, or even a handful of apples and shove them into a supermarket ‘produce’ bag.

The solution is complex, and simple. Bring your own containers to take out restaurants (especially the ones where food isn’t weighed), refuse to purchase food innovations such as individually wrapped chicken breasts AND write the company telling them exactly why you refuse to buy that product, and consequently anything else they produce. Carry your own bags to stores, think long and hard about how things are wrapped – the hidden costs of what you’re purchasing beyond what you’re actually purchasing.

We also have to find a way to legislate business behavior. Just because business can do something doesn’t mean business should. I, personally, would love to find a way to codify the precautionary principle into law so that any innovation would have to pass a set of tests to prove that they are sustainable before they’re unleashed onto the world of large.

Popular outcry got McDonalds and other fast food restaurants to stop using foam packaging for their sandwiches, and our efforts can get manufacturers to think long and hard about what they wrap their food in.