June 23, 2009

Are you addicted to plastic?

I’m a typical consumer and enjoy the convenience of plastic. But I’m reluctant to buy a lot of it, since it increases our reliance on foreign oil and it’s not easily recycled. The sale of Pur and Brita water filters increased 22 percent in recent months as more folks switch away from bottled water. That's good news.

We are seeing more bioplastics, made from corn, sugarcane, wheat, and other crops. They sound promising, but not if they contribute to a global food crisis by using land that grew crops for human consumption.

It’s easy to mistake Primo’s #7 bioplastic water bottles for #1, but they’re made out of corn and don’t belong in the recycling stream. Only #1 and #2 plastics (with necks) are OK in our curbside bins. There’s also the question of whether Primo’s polylactide (PLA) bottles truly are biodegradable, or release methane in a landfill.

After viewing the recent documentary, “Addicted to Plastic,” I took a closer look at how much plastic surrounded me. OOPS! I'm typing this on a plastic keyboard on a predominately plastic computer. I enjoy sailing on the Chesapeake in my (oops) fiberglass and plastic resins sailboat--definitely oil-based products. The Captain and I started out as purists 35 years ago with a wooden boat, but ease of maintenance now rules the day. I guess we’re doomed to live with the stuff.

We’ve experienced as many tranquil bay tributaries as possible, as well as Baltimore Inner Harbor (after the recent huge odoriferous fish kill). The recent heavy rains wash a lot of flotsam into this particular area. But a generous grant has funded a gizmo that’s called a “Water Wheel Powered Trash Interceptor.” It’s a floating-garbage-picker-upper that handles the stuff that flows into their storm sewers, then ultimately into the harbor. Eventually, our local litter travels to one of the two big garbage patches that are forming in the Atlantic.

I've posted before about floating plastic dumps. They exist as humongous “ocean landfills.” The largest one, midway between Hawaii and California, is called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and is now almost as large as the continental U.S. Almost all of this floating debris started out as litter, tons of it held in place by swirling currents and winds.

First seen by a sailor who ventured into these doldrums in 1997, this flotsam patch is growing at an alarming rate. Plastics will not biodegrade, but instead break down into small chunks that float just below the surface.

Or check out Mother Nature Network's info on the garbage patch.