The Plastic Plague: A Call to Action

By Joanne Mullowney

“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… Are you listening? … Plastics.”  Never has there been a phrase quite so retrospectively chilling as these words spoken to new graduate, Benjamin Braddock, in The Graduate in 1967 when our love affair with plastic was beginning to shift into high gear. A revolutionary synthetic product whose usage would allow for conservation of scarce natural resources, its usage surged over time and replaced traditional materials in product after product. Versatile and inexpensive, manufacturers continued to find new usages for plastics in both products and packaging. Disposability and convenience became bywords as we adopted a more throw away life style. However, today we are reaping the consequences of that thoughtless embrace of disposability. We have found that the great disposable product is not so easily disposed of. Our landfills are overflowing with plastic debris, but also significantly, because all streams eventually find their way to the sea, our oceans have become riddled with it. Today, the health of the oceanic ecosystem is in danger, from the smallest plankton thru all levels of the food chain to the largest whale.

Not since Michael Pollack’s expose about our industrial food system in the Omnivore’s Dilemma have I found a book to be as eye-opening and chilling as Plastic Ocean, Captain Michael Moore’s exposé that documents the degradation of the health of our seas. In it, Captain Moore describes his love affair with the sea, dating back to his teens in the sixties. In 1997 he began to notice significant changes when returning home in a trans-Pacific race. After taking a shortcut through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a vast “oceanic desert” where slack wind patterns cause sailboats to languish, he came across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is one of 5 such gyres now known that are vast repositories of plastic garbage of all kinds, creating a kind of vast plastic soup. Outraged and concerned, Captain Moore began to investigate the increasing evidence of the plastic debris in our seas and on our shores. Plastic Ocean not only records the results of his investigations, but issues a call to action.

In it we learn the effects of plastic non-biodegradability in any practical human scale of time, especially because of the cooler ocean temperatures. We learn that familiar plastic products like bags, foam cups, pens, bottles and their caps, and debris such as fishing nets abandoned overboard by fishermen abound at sea as oceanic plastic pollution and that scientific research is showing that increasing numbers of the deaths of seabirds, fish, turtles and other marine mammals can be attributed to ingestion or entanglement in plastic debris. During his numerous Pacific voyages, Captain Moore has also documented the breakdown of plastics into “microplastics” when exposed to sunlight and other environmental stresses. These smaller scraps remain a plastic polymer and non-biodegradable. Unfortunately, they appear jellyfish like and are readily ingested by multiple marine creatures. In inverse proportion to their size, these are proving to be a grave threat to the health of the entire oceanic ecosystem.

Our Call to Action

This November 4th Mercer County voters will have the opportunity to take a place among progressive communities across the country and around the globe to vote “yes” on a non-binding referendum to impose a 5¢ fee on single use plastic bags. This will be an important first step in reducing the plague of plastic pollution and litter that imperils our environment and our health. Fee imposition has been shown to be the one method of curtailing usage that truly works.

I encourage you to educate yourselves about our plastic plague before making your decision on November 4th. Read Plastic Ocean. It will open your eyes to the immensity and immediacy of the problem. Attend the Ewing Green Team’s Environmental Insights series film and discussion of the movie, Bag It, on Monday, October 27th where we follow everyman, Jeff Berrier, as he tries to make sense of our dependence on plastic bags. Then, see if you can cast other than a “yes” vote on this issue on November 4th.

Before Nov 4th Do the Following:

Attend: Green Team’s Environmental Insights Series Film and Discussion of the Movie, BAG IT
Date: Monday, October 27th
Time: 7 pm
Location: TCNJ – Library Auditorium
Cost: Free of charge – all are welcome

Read: Plastic Ocean
Title: Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans
Author: Captain Michael Moore with Cassandra Phillips
Date: Paperback, 2012
Publisher: Avery Trade; Reprint edition
Availability: Amazon (link); Mercer County Library (link)

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