A Plastic-Polluted Planet
Is it too late to change?
By Allan R. Handysides
In the course of my work-related travels, I have at times witnessed scenes of human desperation. Few plights have upset me more than the sight of human scavengers. When these scavengers are children, the scene is even more painful to view.
Just two weeks before I penned these words, I watched in anguish as youth foraged through the dirt and debris of a dumpster in Madagascar. Previously, during a different trip, I saw people combing a massive garbage dump in India. More horrifying was the information that these people live on the dump. They sleep there, raise babies there, and die there. Scrambling amid the refuse, their lives seem reduced to the mere imperative of existence. How does the gospel penetrate such dire need?
These thoughts were heightened recently when I read a book by Alan Weisman titled The World Without Us. The author is obviously an evolutionist, but he describes his vision of what would happen to the earth if humanity were to be mysteriously removed. His scientific background equips him well for his imaginary scenarios, but also permits him to paint a gruesome future should men and women not disappear from the earth.
A Giant Garbage Dump
It is the potential Weisman describes of the whole earth becoming a giant garbage dump that is compelling. It reinforces my belief that Jesus has to come soon, and convinces me that all humans are part of the pollution problem and therefore must also be part of any amelioration in the condition of the earth.
In the chapter titled “Polymers Are Forever,” Weisman describes the work of several marine biologists. One of them, Richard Thompson, while an undergraduate student, helped to clean up one of Britain’s shorelines. Removing some of the tons of garbage washed ashore each day, he noted that the larger floating pieces seemed to be directed by the wind. This meant he was cleaning up trash from Ireland, and England’s floating trash was befouling the shores of Scandinavia. Unlike the large floating materials, however, Thompson found a massive amount of small particulate trash, generally unnoticed among the bottles, plastic bags, automobile tires, pieces of rope, and plastic caps.
Now a professor at the University of Plymouth in England, Thompson points out a special subspecies of particle called “nurdles,” found in the waters around Plymouth. Shaped like little uniform rods some two millimeters in length, these nurdles are the raw materials used to create plastic products of any conceivable shape. Thompson says they must have been carried by currents for hundreds of miles, because no plastic factories exist near Plymouth.
Wave action pounds plastic particles smaller and smaller. When the particulate debris is analyzed in Thompson’s lab, he finds that one third is biologic debris, one third is clearly particulate plastic, and another third is composed of particles defying exact definition but are plastic polymers of some kind.
Early in the twentieth century, Alistair Hardy, another marine biologist, began the collection of samples of the sea by means of collecting krill in a special apparatus he designed to be dragged behind oceangoing vessels. The sampling program he started has continued, with stored specimens providing a chronological history of the oceans throughout the past century. The apparatus drags about 10 meters (some 33 feet) below the surface collecting krill, tiny shrimplike creatures. Krill are part of the bedrock layer of the earth’s food chain. These creatures ingest tiny particles and function like microsieves of the ocean.
Plastics have been around only about 70 years, and in the first half of the century plastic did not feature in the samples. By the 1960s, however, it was noted that the krill were ingesting plastic particles. By the 1990s the plastic content in the oceans had tripled.
Plastic does not degrade; it becomes only increasingly particulated—obviously small enough for tiny krill to eat. We are familiar with pictures of turtles eating plastic bags, of birds strangled in plastic or nylon fishing lines, but the tiniest of animals are eating microparticulate plastic, often with lethal consequences.
It’s not news to plastic producers that their product is not biodegradable. Aware of the growing mountains of plastic trash, manufacturers came up with “biodegradable” plastic bags, which are made from a mixture of cellulose and plastic. The cellulose breaks down just fine, because it is basically a sugar, but the plastic parts remain—only now they are in micro-particulate form and more readily washed into the ocean.
Plastic is everywhere. I recently counted the plastic bottles in my own bathroom. Sitting around the perimeter of the tub were two bottles of shampoo, two bottles of conditioner, one of body wash, and one tube of facial cleanser. On the shelf across the room were plastic containers of moisturizer and bottles of prescription pills. The garbage container was lined with a plastic bag. I noted my plastic toothbrush and hairbrush, as well as the plastic bag my travel kit is contained in. And I could go on. Yet, if time were to last, 1,000 years from now these plastic “necessities” would persist as detritus on some sickly seashore.
Millions of plastic bottles are used every day by a countless number of people whose water supply is safe but who prefer the convenience of a disposable bottle of water, which they “drink and drop.” Instead, a simple filter can make any American city’s water taste as good as bottled water. Why not drink from a reusable metal flask refilled at home?
Plastic particles in the facial dermabrasive we use to beautify ourselves trickle down the drain into the sewers and eventually out to sea. Not large enough to be wind-driven, they will be carried into the ponderous currents of the deep. Weisman says they will be around “forever.”
Even when cleaning up after our pets, we encase their natural droppings in a time capsule of plastic. Our “throwaway,” “disposable” society is in such high gear that vast tracks of ocean have become slowly rotating cesspools.
The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is a 10-million-square-mile ocean dump. This slowly gyrating siphon of the Pacific’s debris is one of six such systems in the world’s oceans. Samples of this floating quagmire show plastic particles outnumber plankton by a factor of more than six times.
Particulate marine plastic has the ability to act like a sponge for resilient poisons such as DDT and the toxic polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs). The latter formerly were used to make plastic more pliable, but because of their toxicity they were banned in 1970. Still, the pre-1970 flotsam will leak its PCBs for centuries, if given the chance.
Tony Andrady, a leading expert on plastic, says, “Every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or so still remains.” That is more than 1 billion tons of the stuff!
It’s probable that we find it inconceivable to live without plastic, but we at least need to be involved in its recycling. Currently, it costs more to recycle than to make new, but that’s because we’re not counting the cost to the earth. Recycling needs to be made easier and more cost-effective, and taxes should favor recycled products.
Even small changes can make a big difference. “Will you take a paper or plastic bag?” the checkout clerk asks. “Oh, the plastic seems easier,” you say. “Let’s save the trees!” Wrong answer! Ask for a hemp, cloth, or paper bag.
When Will It End?
Is all this pollution going to end soon? Fortunately, as Adventists, we believe it has to. Meanwhile, however, while we are commissioned to be stewards of the earth and occupy it until Jesus comes, even countries considered small are producing thousands of tons of plastic bags every month. As for those “nurdles,” 250 billion pounds of them are produced each year. Quite a lot for an almost-indestructible product! Is this the way people fill their role as stewards of the earth? Is this how we care for God’s creation?
Plastic is only one among the myriads of waste products our consumer world is producing. With spreading industrialization worldwide, the amount of waste products is accelerating. Just the debris from our “obsolete” computers is massive. Carbon dioxide is warming the planet as it befouls the atmosphere. Radioactive waste that has a half-life of thousands of years is still being produced.
Isn’t it time to think seriously about the part each of us plays in the trashing of the earth? Surely, as custodians of the planet, we need to learn to consume less, conserve more, and care better for the handiwork of God.
In Revelation 11:18, the Bible speaks of Jesus coming to destroy those who destroy the earth. As a boy, the earth appeared to me so vast, so enormous, that for a puny race of men and women to destroy it seemed incomprehensible. Now, with an ever-burgeoning population and industrial proliferation, the destruction of the earth seems all too possible—even probable. It is recognizably growing old like a garment, and it is we who are wearing it out!
As the planet becomes “shrink-wrapped” in plastic, all life is squeezed and distorted. As the world becomes more and more like a trash heap of pollution, God must look with horror at our ways. Once more we are frantically engaged in “cure,” having disdained prevention.
It might be easy to say, “Oh, Jesus will someday make it all right,” but I don’t want to be among those who make it all so wrong! Surely, we respect God enough to honor His handiwork.
Allan R. Handysides is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.