Turning the Tides: Plastics are building up in the ocean

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2007

Many think the ocean is separate from humans - a backdrop - important only for its contribution to economic growth.

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René Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher, stated that every living thing, including humans and nature itself, is basically nothing more than a machine - an assemblage of mechanically functioning parts. John Locke, another famous philosopher of the time, claimed that land left to nature is wasted - nature only has utilitarian value. And Thomas Hobbes proposed that humanity is continually engaged in a war of all against all.

The theories of these thinkers laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, and their ideas still reverberate in Western culture today. They are part of the reason so much of earth, ocean, plants and animals are now full of toxins or completely destroyed.

Science has discovered that oceans, plants and animals, earth, stones, stars and humans are all made of the same basic elements - oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, iron - minerals and gases common to everything. An atom in an oxygen molecule in a human is identical to an atom in an oxygen molecule in fish, plants, ocean, air and earth. These atoms constantly hop around. The ones that are in your body today were last year in the bodies of squirrels, spruce trees, creeks, seaweed, mushrooms, whales - even cars and computers. Everything is constantly becoming something else.

Nature is full of cycles. Plants use the carbon we exhale to build tissue - which we then eat in the form of fruits and vegetables. A sulphur compound made at the bottom of the ocean arrives on the land as part of rain, is taken up by plant roots and needed by every human cell to live. Its components are eventually excreted and end up once more being reassembled at the bottom of the ocean. Today plants feed my body. Tomorrow my body will feed plants. There are thousands of these cycles.

Which is why highly poisonous PBDEs, polybrominated flame retardants - manmade chemicals used in plastics - end up in mother's milk - in such high quantities that this milk is now too polluted to pass FDA standards.

There are almost 100,000 manmade chemical molecules, developed in the past 60 or so years, cycling through earth, plants, air and water - toxic molecules that don't biodegrade but remain for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. They are one reason why almost 50 percent of our population will get cancer - up from about 4 percent in the early 1970s.

So what can we do?

Traditional people say we must learn to be friends with the natural world - not force it to be something it isn't. It really is up to us. We are all part of the problem. We can all be part of the solution. No corporation will continue to make products that people won't buy. The consumer rules. If we change, so will the companies.

A first step is education - what are we eating, drinking, using - where does it come from and what is it doing to us?

An easy place to start is with plastic bags. Fifty years ago they didn't exist. Now many of us can't imagine life without them. The world uses about one million a minute. Most are used for an average of 12 minutes - and take hundreds of years to photodegrade into toxic molecules that get into fish, plants, water, air, and humans. There are now six times more plastic plankton-size bits than plankton in large parts of the ocean, and fish, birds and marine mammals are eating them by the ton. And they are dying. The ones that live continue to carry the toxins in their flesh that often ends up on our dinner plates.

The world is waking up to the horrendous impacts of plastic bags. They have been taxed or banned in Australia, Bangladesh, Italy, Taiwan, Mumbai, Scotland, France, West Bengal, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Switzerland, Rwanda, Denmark, Germany, South Africa, California, South Africa, Somalia, Botswana and the Philippines.

Ireland placed a 17 pence tax on plastic bags reducing their use by 90 percent in a year. Hoping for similar results, two bills, S.B. 118 and H.B. 230, have been introduced into the Alaska Legislature, that would place a 15 cent fee on each bag. Twenty-two Alaska villages have banned them.

Please remember that if you choose to use a plastic bag, you and your children will eventually drink it, breathe it or eat it and get sick or even die from it. Is it worth it?

• Dixie Belcher is a member of Turning the Tides, a Juneau nonprofit focused on the ocean and its health. To contact the group, call 789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org.

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