Plastic, Oil, War

A brief from Dr. Marcus Eriksen, Phd, Co-Captain of the JUNKraft and research scientist and educator for Algalita Marine Research Foundation

I want my fellow Americans to understand the true life cycle of our plastic trash. Our “Throw Away” society produces 120 billion pounds of plastic in the U.S. alone, and recovers less than 5%. That recovered post-consumer plastic waste (bottles, caps, bags, straws, etc…) is not typically recycled in our country.

I recently visited America’s greatest landfill in Puente Hills, California. Of the 1300 tons of trash they receive daily, they recover plenty of plastic, but when asked, “Where does it go?” the reply was, “China.” On top of that, we lose much of our plastic waste out to sea. The JUNKraft expedition was my third time visiting the Eastern Garbage Patch. I’ve had the privilege of working with Captain Charles Moore to see first-hand the rapid accumulation of plastics in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as far from land as you can get in the world. We found fish full of plastic. Years earlier I had pulled hundreds of bottle caps, lighters and toothbrushes out of the carcasses of Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll. The environmental costs are enormous, and then there’s human health.

On the JUNKraft expedition, as our food reserves dwindled, we caught fish, specifically a Rainbow Runner. Joel Paschal, co-navigator, and I discovered their stomachs filled with plastics. We know that plastic as sea is a sponge for pollutants, like DDT, other pesticides, PCBs, and PAHs, from the incomplete burning of fossil fuels. Ingested plastic carries these toxins into the food that we harvest, and you and I eat. I don’t want garbage accumulating in my body from what’s on my dinner plate. I don’t want these synthetic compounds accumulating in my tissues and organs, or the bodies of my family, or my future children.

Anna Cummins, one of my partners in the JUNKraft project, will soon conduct her own body burden analysis. It is sad that every American currently carries a body burden of synthetic chemicals in his or her tissues and organs. Anna and I about to embark on a 2000-mile cycling/speaking tour about plastic waste down the west coast of North America, called JUNKride. Somewhere along the way we will marry, and someday start a family. It is a sad note that the surest way to unload your toxic load is to give it to your newborn child through breastmilk. We are terrified of this, as every American should be. The true lifecycle of throw-away plastic is that it is to wasteful to value.

When I talk about the entire lifecycle, I need to include the raw material for plastic, which we all know is petroleum. In 1991, as a U.S. Marine, I stood in the desert outside Kuwait City covered with oil falling from burning wells. I understand very well the price average Americans pay for our ‘written policies to go war to secure access to the energy reserves of the Persian Gulf’ (I’m quoting James Baker here, former U.S. Secretary of State). This is the beginning of the lifecycle of plastic. Then we create billions of pounds of plastic and distribute it around the world, knowing that recovery and recycling are largely inefficient, and knowing that the chemistry of plastic is bioactive in the marine environment and in our bodies. This is the true cost of throw-away plastic on society, which we unknowingly pay so that we may have the convenience of throw-away plastics. I truly believe that if every American understood lifecycle of plastic waste, then we as a nation would do the right thing.  With the right information, we make the right choices.

Manuel Martinez

Project GreenBag, 2200 Market St, San Francisco, CA, 94114, United States