September 01, 2019

Plague, pestilence, plastic? Maybe not.

Mary Ellen Ternes

As environmental practitioners, we know that there really is no such thing as throwing something “away.” We can change its form, separate it into elements, or otherwise manage it, but material does not magically “go away.” Except for loss of helium and other light elements to outer space, we essentially live in a closed system that continues to contain what we discard, whether or not we can see it. While carbon dioxide’s invisibility might be part of the reason climate change deniers maintain a foothold, plastic is mostly visible, so we can usually see it. But unlike other wastes that we are better at regulating, because they are plainly acutely toxic, reactive, ignitable or corrosive, the same properties of plastic that make it so useful for consumer products also cause us to become complacent about plastic hazards in the environment. Plastic is a synthetic substance not of our natural world with an almost perpetual life. It has no natural place in our environment. So, it ends up doing harm in the stomachs of whales, dolphins, and albatross chicks, as well as filter feeders like larvaceans that eat microplastics, which are then eaten by organisms from tuna to turtles, including us. See e.g., Maria Temming, Tiny Plastic Debris Is Accumulating Far Beneath the Ocean Surface, Science News (June 2019).

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