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Waste a healthy world  garbage will kill so be ethical | Upload Household

A Healthy World? Garbage Will Kill So Be Ethical

by: Joyce Mahler
a healthy world  garbage will kill so be ethical | Upload

This is the sequel on 'Clean Future? Garbage Kills So get by With Less'. The terrifying true story of the garbage that could kill the whole human race. 

Six Pounds Of Plastic Particles For Every Pound Of Zooplankton.

Moore returned to the patch in 1998 with his ship the Alguita, and a crew of volunteers, hauling aboard a ton of debris and dragging a trawl to look at the smaller stuff. From his trawl results, Moore measured six pounds of plastic particles for every pound of zooplankton. In the patch, the sea was becoming plasticized. In a cosmic irony, humanity had become the medium for transforming millions of years of complex, edible life forms—the zoo- and phytoplankton that became petroleum—into their far more straightforward and indigestible, petroleum-based simulacra.

Recommended: Breaking: Did You Know, All You Read About CO2 Rise Is Half The Truth

In this shell game, the most visibly defrauded of nature’s citizens has been the albatross, the large canary in the plastic pollution coal mine. Unable to resist the floating plastic smorgasbord, adult birds sometimes choke or starve to death with a gullet full of polypropylene. The autopsy of one chick on Midway Island revealed more than 500 plastic bits, including cigarette lighters, shotgun shell casings, toy wheels, and a piece of an airplane marked “VP-101,” which was traced to a navy patrol bomber shot down in 1944.

Recommended: Climate Change Stop, Store CO2, Add Phytoplankton By Whales?

Plastic Garbage In The Gyres Wasn’t Going Anywhere.

That 60-year-old World War II souvenir confirmed what was long suspected: Plastic debris in the gyres wasn’t going anywhere but in endless circles. Indeed, all the petroleum-based plastic ever manufactured—the billiard balls of the 1870s, the nylon stockings of the 1930s, every tiddlywink and bit of sandwich wrap—is still somewhere among us. 


Graphic foodchain

Plastic Doesn’t Readily Biodegrade

Plastic doesn’t readily biodegrade, of course. That is one of its great anti-microbial virtues, as well as its curse. It can persist for centuries in landfills and longer in the sea, scientists believe. Plastic does photodegrade, however. Exposed to sunlight, it loses its useful qualities, its plasticity—becomes stiff and brittle and breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces.

Meanwhile, as a typical 2-liter soda bottle made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) circles the drain, eventually breaking up into bits, it acts as a molecular sponge for whatever poisons it encounters, absorbing “persistent organic pollutants” like PCBs—which are known to cause cancer in lab animals and are probable human carcinogens linked to increased incidence of melanomas, liver cancer, and gall bladder and brain cancer. Many POPs are “lipophilic,” attracted to fatty tissues and oily substances such as petroleum-based plastics. Hideshige Takada, a Japanese scientist studying plastic particles from the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, found them to be one million times more toxic than the ambient seawater in which they floated.

All the sea filter feeders—from the tiny salps and jellies to the giant baleen whales—may be slurping up these poison pills. Smaller still and more ubiquitous in the ocean is plastic dust, which our bobbing PET bottle will one day become. And dust is not the end. Even plastic dust continues to break down into strings of indestructible synthetic molecules, too small by far for nets of the most refined mesh to catch. It is likely that every seabird now has that micro-plastic in it and every fish. And all of us. A poisoned food chain's health repercussions seem apparent, but a catastrophe-to-be may brew unseen like cancer before metastasis.

Ebbesmeyer, who became famous late in his career when he tracked a spilled container of 80,000 Nike Sneakers and made “gyres” a household word, is one of the world’s foremost experts on marine debris. There are eight distinct garbage patches in the planet’s seas by his count, all very likely still on the increase, as plastic production continues to balloon—up from 3.4 billion pounds in 1950 to 567 billion pounds in 2012.

“Nobody knows how dangerous they are,” he said of the garbage patches. “We have very little data. And we simply don’t know how to clean the ocean. We are dealing with perhaps the mother of all problems. I think the ocean is infected.”

That’s a scary thought. And yet, we’re not much afraid. We’re a bellicose and contentious species rather than a fearful one, and we’re equipped with extraordinary powers of denial. In that, we may be as fucked as the albatross by our evolutionary limitations. We are afraid of losing our jobs and our homes in an economic depression and having to hit the road as hobo hunter-gatherers. And we believe that could very well happen to a lot of us unless more and more consumers keep buying more and more stuff, much of it made of plastic, and nearly all of it wrapped in seductive shiny plastic packages.

“We’re adrift on the rapids of consumption,” Charles Moore told me in a phone interview. “We are becoming our products. People are being organized by an uncritical consumer culture in which there’s no psychological space for change. Growth has become a sacred word, like democracy or motherhood. It’s the paradigm of cancer.”

In 2005, Moore met Marcus when the latter was touring California schools with Bottle Rocket, the small plastic-bottle paddle-craft with which he recently completed a 7-month descent of the Mississippi River, its Minnesota source to the Gulf. Impressed with the young maverick scientist, whom he calls “a great educator,” Moore hired Dr. Marcus as director of program development for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation—in effect, as heir to the garbage patch problem. It’s a burden Dr. Marcus bears with cheerful equanimity.

Aboard the Sea Dragon, about 800 miles out and still, in the shit weather-wise, we’re all gathered around the oval galley table, which is comically tilted toward starboard. Everyone is gyroscopic some warm beverage with one hand and munching a bit of chocolate from Marcus’s secret stash. After four days of root vegetable soups and pasta, it’s a real luxury.

From what he’s seen at sea, Marcus tells us, he agrees with the growing consensus that there’s no way to clean up the existing patches. A Greenpeace study estimated that it would take 68 ships trawling 24 hours a day an entire year to cover 1 percent of the Pacific. They would burn up a tremendous amount of fuel and do more harm than good. “Going after the trash with nets is like standing on top of the Empire State Building with a vacuum cleaner sucking up air pollution,” he says. Reducing litter would help; plastic drives would do some good with economic incentives to corral plastic waste like the old-school paper drives. But not nearly enough. “There’s no post-consumer solution,” Marcus says. “The answer is to stop the source.”
4 men at sunset at the beach collecting garbage
Photo by Sergio Izquierdo

Efforts To Reduce The Flow Of Garbage 

Of course, the petrochemical complex, its dependents, and beneficiaries—about everybody—resist change. The recent attempt to ban the plastic shopping bag in California was defeated because it would cost jobs and hinder growth. The bag even has its website, Save the Plastic Bag, which, along with quite reasonable-sounding arguments against demonizing the ubiquitous things, shows annotated versions of Marcus’s own Junk voyage videos, pointing out that the small amounts of plastic bits in his trawls are negligible—implying that the garbage patches and the plastics problem are mostly green hype. When Marcus traveled by bicycle from Vancouver to Tijuana, giving talks in 46 cities and towns (the “Junk Ride”), the same organization shadowed them, he’s convinced, using pretty Hispanic girls as audience plants to discredit his research with scripted questions and comments. He believes that “they,” the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry, are also behind pseudo-efforts to clean up the patches with trawl nets. And they are pushing recycling as a final solution, which by itself doesn’t work, and which allows them to carry on business as usual with a clean green conscience.

As a paper published in the 2010 Proceedings of the Royal Society dryly concludes: “Efforts to reduce the flow of plastic to the seas face formidable technological and economic obstacles.”

We’ve been at sea a week now, bounced and wallowed and puked a thousand miles in foul weather, and the eyesore of macro-rubbish has yet to appear. I was prepared to be amazed and appalled like Captain Moore, and, well, it’s human nature to feel oddly disappointed when our worst fears fail to materialize. Maybe tomorrow we’ll strike the mother lode. Do I give a shit? I have succumbed to the surreality of never-ending discombobulation, the lurch in the dark, the ponging from wall to wall, the spilled drink and the piss on your foot, and have sunk into a funk. In my potato sack of a bunk, I’m listening to the wind shriek and the hull boom like a bass drum and re-reading my favorite passages from Moby Dick. Like Queequeg, I’m fashioning my coffin from literary references.

Here’s Ahab addressing the crew of the Pequod, freaking them out with his bizarre neo-Platonism and Shakespearean diction: “Hark ye yet again”—says he—the little lower layer.” (I love that.) “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” That’s creepy enough, a double vision of a dual world with a hostile underpinning. '"Malice sewing it,” as Ahab says. A world where every solution is a problem in disguise. But hark ye: Ahab is an oilman. He hunts the purest energy source of his day, the spermaceti. Proto-petroleum, solar juice in a big sentient package. It was bloody savage work. Our contemporary oilmen have lost the blood but perhaps not the savagery, not on the nano-level—“the little lower layer”—where petroleum by-products wreak their havoc.

The Whole Human Race: Checkmate

I scrounge around in my bunk-side library for another volume: Tristes Tropique. With impeccable logic, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss beats the drum of doom, prophesizing the dangers of economic growth on a global scale. He sees industrial civilization as the unparalleled agent of entropy, breaking down complex structures into simpler forms—as a marsh becomes a parking lot, a winding river a canal—until, at the height of human success, every niche has been exploited, every gap filled. The monolithic monoculture grinds to a halt, one giant gear with nothing left to grab. He goes on, into the realm of lucid paranoia (as if taking dictation from a spaceship), to speak of a “progressive welding together of humanity and the physical universe, whose great deterministic laws, instead of remaining remote and awe-inspiring, now use thought itself as an intermediary medium and are colonizing us on behalf of a silent world of which we have become the agents.”

Say quoi, mon frère? Is Levi-Strauss’s “silent world” the same entity as Melville’s “unknown but still reasoning thing”? The two great pessimists seem to evoke a kind of cosmic accounting in a universal ledger book. Therein is writ the actual costs of civilization. Of the Anthropocene. We take. “It” records. And then It moves in response, this sentient jelly of All. Check. And checkmate.
Graphic influence plastic on sperm

Plastic, And Its Burden Of POPs

Indeed I’m suffering some cosmic claustrophobia, imagining the ever-expanding oceanic garbage patches silently exuding strings of indestructible polymerizing molecules into every living thing and all the spaces between them. In a subtler, more devious poisoning than the starving of the albatross, we would hardly sense our altered biochemistry until it was too late.

In my conversation with Curtis Ebbesmeyer, he suggested a thought experiment: Make a list of crises and put them in order of which is most likely to end humanity. Global warming? Acidification of water? A meteor? Supervolcano? For a short-term extinction event, Ebbesmeyer’s hunch was plastic. Plastic, and its burden of POPs, would travel up the food chain via fish, concentrating in the apex predators—a dwindling few killer whales, porpoises, tuna, and us. Plus, it’s all around us anyway, beginning with baby’s sippy cup. In our daily lives, we are practically plastic-wrapped. Ebbesmeyer referred me to the book The Feminization of Nature, by Deborah Cadbury, for a comprehensive look at endocrine-disrupting and estrogen-mimicking chemicals. Whether diphenyl and bisphenol, virtually all commercially available plastics leach synthetic estrogens and may be contributing to a host of health problems; indeed, it’s already happening. One’s grandfather’s penis was, on average, two centimeters longer; our grandmothers hit puberty at age 17; their granddaughters at age 12: Estrogen-saturated parody adults—a final joke before extinction. Sperm counts are down 50 percent since the 1950s. “In another 50 years, we may not be able to reproduce,” Ebbesmeyer said.

In the endgame, we’ll be a race of sexed-up tweener girls and sterile dudes with little dicks wandering baffled through a rubbish-filled world. Then those poor mismatched souls will grow old and die—end of the story.

I put out my light and fret in the dark, ever on the verge of being pitched onto the floor of the rolling Sea Dragon, until I’m alerted to the jingle-jangle of safety gear approaching down the dark hallway. It’s Watch Team C come to rouse us. “Rise and shine, Buckminister,” I hear. “We depend on you, mate.”

Watch Team A congregates at the clothes closet by the gangway stairs and begins pulling out our salt-stiffened foul-weather overalls, bouncing wearily off the walls as we dress. Above is the worst squall yet, with gusts close to 40 knots. It has Captain Clive’s attention. He’s at the wheel, a bearded English gnome, looking superbly calm. After all, he’s skippered around the Horn through the brutal Roaring Forties. He directs Marcus and me to winch in the mainsail—“A bit more, a bit more, just a bit more, please; there, perfect, thank you.”


Black and white graphic plastic production
A small, Routine Act Of Heroism

But the storm does threaten the data stream. Up to now, Marcus has taken a trawl sample at least every 60 miles. In the 1,200 miles we’ve now sailed, we’ve crossed through the northern portion of the southern gyre—and a section at least of what could’ve been the South Atlantic Garbage Patch. But the seas are vast, the patches protean, and perhaps mostly sunken, below visibility or the reach of the trawl. We haven’t wasted our efforts, though: Marcus’s closet-sized lab next to the galley is filling up with specimen jars of swirling plastic dust bunnies. There are plenty of samples to analyze back home in a real lab. Still, we haven’t hit that motherlode of rubbish, and it’s looking like we’re not going to.

Recommended: Waste In Oceans: Plastic Soup And The Great Bubble Barrier

After a couple of hours of fitful, shouted conversation, Marcus confers with Captain Clive. We’ve got to turn back. That at least entails a few minutes of exciting sail trimming, but I’m groaning inwardly. I’m aching for us to turn north and make for Ascension Island, terra firma. Instead, we’re going to sail west for six hours, and lose a half day’s progress, at least. It’s sound science, of course, and a small, routine act of heroism.

I’m growing increasingly convinced that Marcus — once one of the most gung-ho marines imaginable, a man who battled through post-traumatic stress to become a grassroots activist battling for human rights — has been bred by the times to fight the motherfucking Blob.

He was just 16 when he persuaded his mother to accompany him to the Marine recruiting office. His boyhood heroes were the Vietnam vets in his blue-collar neighborhood, and once in uniform himself, he loved the Corps. Loved it with pure love. He became that shining thing, the edge of the sword; the Corps felt that love and named him Marine of the Year in 1989.

Then he saw combat. In his stories of the First Gulf War, all roads lead to the Highway of Death, the road to Basra on which the Iraqi army in retreat was slaughtered by coalition airpower. He made four visits to the battle site. “The first time, I was cautious, picking my way through the wreckage,” Marcus says. “But by the last time, I was kicking grenades out of my path. I didn’t believe I could be killed. I didn’t care if I was. I was in despair.”
2 men on the beach
Photo by Courtesy 5 Gyres Institute

An Inveterate Collector

He’d always been an inveterate collector—in his boyhood, he amassed 96 turtles in the pond he dug in his mother’s backyard (that same backyard is now the repository of 5,000 pounds of dinosaur bones)—and at war, he filled up three duffel bags with various oddities like black scorpions and a camel spider, and the ubiquitous abandoned war materiel. Marines pride themselves on their resourceful scavenging—“rat-fucking” is the flexible term. In an abandoned Iraqi bunker, he rat-fucked a phone book-sized British catalog of weaponry advertising everything from fighter jets and submarines to ammunition of every caliber. It was a light bulb moment for the young marine. He perceived the global military-industrial complex overarching the petty squabbles of sovereign states. Stuff was in the saddle and rode us. And there it all was—tons of it anyway—on the Highway of Death, thousands of blasted vehicles in a frozen traffic jam.

He saw things there he can never forget—men charred and blown to bits; a dead soldier on whose desiccated face the mustache was peeling off so that it flapped in the wind like a little flag. Earlier in the war, he and his unit had come across a dead Iraqi who’d been cut nearly in half by shrapnel. “He had been blown about 30 feet from his jeep, which was incinerated,” Marcus remembers. “His stomach was open, his guts hanging out, and he had obviously tried to stand and had fallen back, but before he died, he waved his arms in the sand. It was just pain and the throes of death, but he made these wings in the sand, like the way kids make snow angels.”

Years later, still struggling to fit back into civilian life—“I chose books over the bottle; I sequestered myself, slept in university libraries”—Marcus created a life-sized sculpture of the fallen man out of 70,000 steel ball bearings. “It took me three years to weld them all together,” he tells me. “I chose steel because of what I know about desert warfare. Nothing moves but steel, sand, and flesh; they cut through each other.”
Man throwing tool from ship
Photo by Sergio Izquierdo

Making art and earning advanced degrees—his Ph.D. from USC is in science education—got him through the worst years of readjustment. But the saber-rattling buildup to the second Iraq war stirred up all the old nihilism and angst. Bad memories came surging back, along with a promise he’d made with one of his New Orleans homeboys from his reserve unit. They’d been stuck in a foxhole together, artillery flying by overhead, just two miserable young men trying to take their minds off the horrors they’d seen. They swore to each other that if they made it home alive, they were going to build a raft and float down the Mississippi like Huckleberry Finn.

In August 2003, Eriksen launched Bottle Rocket, a little catamaran with plastic bottle pontoons, an old Mustang seat, and two bicycles cannibalized to drive a paddle wheel. He started in Minnesota and didn’t reach the Gulf until February of 2004. That self-imposed ordeal helped him reclaim his fighting spirit. He was homing in on his real adversaries. He writes: “Become mentally prepared, factual and thoughtful, about principles of human rights and sustainability. Become a force of greater persuasion. Choose justice, choose your army, find your students, know your enemy, and then prepare yourself with clenched fists.”

The World Without Us

We’ve sailed out of the storm and into the sunshine and stately blue swells, ranks, and parades of them. Captain Clive has overseen the foresail's furling and the reefing of the main so that Marcus can put out his low-speed Manta trawl. It gurgles along companionably off the starboard rail. The women are hanging out their sink-washed laundry, and some of us men are taking much-needed showers. The sun has dispelled my funk, and the former sense of impending doom now seems a fantasy.

Recommended: Society Collapse: Climate Change, The Environment Or Us?

By late afternoon we have turned north, running with the swells toward Ascension Island, at some point crossing the invisible band of the gyre, leaving behind the plastic accumulation zone. Except for some minor housekeeping calamities as we changed course—everything tilted to starboard shifted to port—nothing much has changed—nothing you can see, anyway.
2 Ships between plastic waste in water
Plastic trash pollution on the beach of Labuan Bajo, Indonesia

But the trawls tell the tale, with a marked decrease in plastic particles. We’re out of the Patch. The last couple of days, I’ve been reading The World Without Us, a book-length thought experiment describing how the Earth might recover from the damage humans have wrought. The chapter on plastic pollution describes Charles Moore’s first voyage through the Great Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch as if his ship were an icebreaker plowing through floes of rubbish. Hyperbole? Not really, Moore later told me. The patch can be thick like that. It can look like a parking lot after a football game. Pilots of small planes have flown over visible windrows of trash in the north Pacific for hundreds of miles. And Curtis Ebbesmeyer has heard from sailors that the South Atlantic Gyre has its dense blights as well.

“I don’t know if you were expecting to see an island of trash, an endless vista of rubbish,” Marcus says to me a couple of days later, sensing my skepticism as I regard the final haul from the Silver Surfer, in sight of the black volcanic hills of Ascension Island: three tiny chips of plastic. “What you saw is the reality of what garbage patches are. It’s an issue that’s invisible to the naked eye until you are looking down at the water and you see speck go by, and then another. You put your net in the water, and you drag it for two miles, and you have a handful of confetti. That’s the garbage patch, and that’s more sinister than the misconceptions that have been created.”

It takes a whole frustrating day to clear customs, but at least we’re anchored in a calm and scenic bay, and our advance party brings back wine for a celebration. Once afoot on Ascension Island, Marcus takes off into the backcountry. He’s burning with curiosity about the marine debris he might find on the remote windward shore. I follow along practically at a jog, the relief of being off the boat making me effusive. I’m babbling to his back as we goat-foot across a field of volcanic rock, telling him the Buddhist fable of Prince Five Weapons and his fight with the Sticky ogre Hair. The ogre guards a forest and kills all who enter, but the prince is undeterred. He meets the monster, and they fight. Prince Five Weapons strikes with his sword, and his sword arm sticks to Sticky Hair. He attacks with his mace, and that arm sticks, too. It kicks with one boot. Sticks. Another boot. Sticks. Nothing left to do but head-butt the brute. But his head sticks fast, also. So there they are, prince and monster, joined in five ways.

“Of course,” I go on, didactically—thinking at the same time that if I twist an ankle, I’m going to have to be helicoptered out of this rock field—“Sticky Hair represents the phenomenal world, the “ten thousand things,” as the Buddhists say. And he’s Prince Five Weapons—the five senses that bind us to the world with desire. But he‘s also the Buddha, and you can‘t catch the freakin’ Buddha. He’s got a secret weapon. I forget what it is.” We’re skidding down a mountainside now, scree surfing. “Detachment!” I say. “I think.” Marcus is amused. “Right. Detachment is why I love rafting. You detach from everything.”

Death Disguised As Santa Claus

We’ve made it down to the coast to a little cove. And here at last, in this lonely spot, about as far from the rat race as you can travel, is a mother lode of plastic—jugs, jars, barrels, deodorant applicators, a doll’s leg, nets, and floats. We spend the next half hour gathering and arranging debris into a haphazard sculpture for photographing. Marcus is collecting cigarette lighters for a future project—a paddleboard of Bics.

I’m thinking, you know, it was good shit, plastic. It answered many “how-to” questions and occasioned a remarkable efflorescence, an unprecedented burst of wealth. Maybe Plastic is Death disguised as Santa Claus—something for everyone from the ever-expanding plastic sack—but certainly, this would be a harsh planet without the plastic used in our technology. Maybe a good motto for homo sapiens as a species is, Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty archeological record. Our stratum will be a bright, shiny smear of plastic.

Recommended: Plastic Out Oceans: Competition For Boyan Slat

Picking up a Pez dispenser with a Donald Duck head on top, I think how plastic answered a lot of “why not?” questions, too. Why not all the plastic toys that were the delight of my childhood. Wiffle balls and plastic bats and Rock them Sock them, Robots. Remembering the robots’ close-quarters combat jogs my memory of Buddha and Sticky Hair. It wasn’t “detachment” per se that made the Enlightened One invulnerable. It was the human mind, an organ more “plastic” than even plastic.

I tell this to Dr. Marcus, but he’s already on to it. “Right,” he says, regarding the pile of rubbish we’ve accumulated, his arms akimbo. “I think we’re on the brink of an age of rationality. Where we have the discipline to realize it’s ethical to be rather than to have. To get by with less. The Age of Rationality. That’s what I want to help usher in.”

Cover photo by Alex Haley .'Ocean Clean Sweep,' An Bang Beach, Hoi An, Vietnam

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Recommended: Solar Panel Recycling: Photovoltaics Rebirth

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A Healthy World? Garbage Will Kill So Be Ethical

This is the sequel on 'Clean Future? Garbage Kills So get by With Less' . The terrifying true story of the garbage that could kill the whole human race.  Six Pounds Of Plastic Particles For Every Pound Of Zooplankton. Moore returned to the patch in 1998 with his ship the Alguita, and a crew of volunteers, hauling aboard a ton of debris and dragging a trawl to look at the smaller stuff. From his trawl results, Moore measured six pounds of plastic particles for every pound of zooplankton. In the patch, the sea was becoming plasticized. In a cosmic irony, humanity had become the medium for transforming millions of years of complex, edible life forms—the zoo- and phytoplankton that became petroleum—into their far more straightforward and indigestible, petroleum-based simulacra. Recommended:  Breaking: Did You Know, All You Read About CO2 Rise Is Half The Truth In this shell game, the most visibly defrauded of nature’s citizens has been the albatross, the large canary in the plastic pollution coal mine. Unable to resist the floating plastic smorgasbord, adult birds sometimes choke or starve to death with a gullet full of polypropylene. The autopsy of one chick on Midway Island revealed more than 500 plastic bits, including cigarette lighters, shotgun shell casings, toy wheels, and a piece of an airplane marked “VP-101,” which was traced to a navy patrol bomber shot down in 1944. Recommended:  Climate Change Stop, Store CO2, Add Phytoplankton By Whales? Plastic Garbage In The Gyres Wasn’t Going Anywhere. That 60-year-old World War II souvenir confirmed what was long suspected: Plastic debris in the gyres wasn’t going anywhere but in endless circles. Indeed, all the petroleum-based plastic ever manufactured—the billiard balls of the 1870s, the nylon stockings of the 1930s, every tiddlywink and bit of sandwich wrap—is still somewhere among us.  Plastic Doesn’t Readily Biodegrade Plastic doesn’t readily biodegrade, of course. That is one of its great anti-microbial virtues, as well as its curse. It can persist for centuries in landfills and longer in the sea, scientists believe. Plastic does photodegrade, however. Exposed to sunlight, it loses its useful qualities, its plasticity—becomes stiff and brittle and breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. Meanwhile, as a typical 2-liter soda bottle made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) circles the drain, eventually breaking up into bits, it acts as a molecular sponge for whatever poisons it encounters, absorbing “persistent organic pollutants” like PCBs—which are known to cause cancer in lab animals and are probable human carcinogens linked to increased incidence of melanomas, liver cancer, and gall bladder and brain cancer. Many POPs are “lipophilic,” attracted to fatty tissues and oily substances such as petroleum-based plastics. Hideshige Takada, a Japanese scientist studying plastic particles from the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, found them to be one million times more toxic than the ambient seawater in which they floated. All the sea filter feeders—from the tiny salps and jellies to the giant baleen whales—may be slurping up these poison pills. Smaller still and more ubiquitous in the ocean is plastic dust, which our bobbing PET bottle will one day become. And dust is not the end. Even plastic dust continues to break down into strings of indestructible synthetic molecules, too small by far for nets of the most refined mesh to catch. It is likely that every seabird now has that micro-plastic in it and every fish. And all of us. A poisoned food chain's health repercussions seem apparent, but a catastrophe-to-be may brew unseen like cancer before metastasis. Ebbesmeyer, who became famous late in his career when he tracked a spilled container of 80,000 Nike Sneakers and made “gyres” a household word, is one of the world’s foremost experts on marine debris. There are eight distinct garbage patches in the planet’s seas by his count, all very likely still on the increase, as plastic production continues to balloon—up from 3.4 billion pounds in 1950 to 567 billion pounds in 2012. “Nobody knows how dangerous they are,” he said of the garbage patches. “We have very little data. And we simply don’t know how to clean the ocean. We are dealing with perhaps the mother of all problems. I think the ocean is infected.” That’s a scary thought. And yet, we’re not much afraid. We’re a bellicose and contentious species rather than a fearful one, and we’re equipped with extraordinary powers of denial. In that, we may be as fucked as the albatross by our evolutionary limitations. We are afraid of losing our jobs and our homes in an economic depression and having to hit the road as hobo hunter-gatherers. And we believe that could very well happen to a lot of us unless more and more consumers keep buying more and more stuff, much of it made of plastic, and nearly all of it wrapped in seductive shiny plastic packages. “We’re adrift on the rapids of consumption,” Charles Moore told me in a phone interview. “We are becoming our products. People are being organized by an uncritical consumer culture in which there’s no psychological space for change. Growth has become a sacred word, like democracy or motherhood. It’s the paradigm of cancer.” In 2005, Moore met Marcus when the latter was touring California schools with Bottle Rocket, the small plastic-bottle paddle-craft with which he recently completed a 7-month descent of the Mississippi River, its Minnesota source to the Gulf. Impressed with the young maverick scientist, whom he calls “a great educator,” Moore hired Dr. Marcus as director of program development for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation—in effect, as heir to the garbage patch problem. It’s a burden Dr. Marcus bears with cheerful equanimity. Aboard the Sea Dragon, about 800 miles out and still, in the shit weather-wise, we’re all gathered around the oval galley table, which is comically tilted toward starboard. Everyone is gyroscopic some warm beverage with one hand and munching a bit of chocolate from Marcus’s secret stash. After four days of root vegetable soups and pasta, it’s a real luxury. From what he’s seen at sea, Marcus tells us, he agrees with the growing consensus that there’s no way to clean up the existing patches. A Greenpeace study estimated that it would take 68 ships trawling 24 hours a day an entire year to cover 1 percent of the Pacific. They would burn up a tremendous amount of fuel and do more harm than good. “Going after the trash with nets is like standing on top of the Empire State Building with a vacuum cleaner sucking up air pollution,” he says. Reducing litter would help; plastic drives would do some good with economic incentives to corral plastic waste like the old-school paper drives. But not nearly enough. “There’s no post-consumer solution,” Marcus says. “The answer is to stop the source.” Photo by Sergio Izquierdo Efforts To Reduce The Flow Of Garbage  Of course, the petrochemical complex, its dependents, and beneficiaries—about everybody—resist change. The recent attempt to ban the plastic shopping bag in California was defeated because it would cost jobs and hinder growth. The bag even has its website, Save the Plastic Bag, which, along with quite reasonable-sounding arguments against demonizing the ubiquitous things, shows annotated versions of Marcus’s own Junk voyage videos, pointing out that the small amounts of plastic bits in his trawls are negligible—implying that the garbage patches and the plastics problem are mostly green hype. When Marcus traveled by bicycle from Vancouver to Tijuana, giving talks in 46 cities and towns (the “Junk Ride”), the same organization shadowed them, he’s convinced, using pretty Hispanic girls as audience plants to discredit his research with scripted questions and comments. He believes that “they,” the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry, are also behind pseudo-efforts to clean up the patches with trawl nets. And they are pushing recycling as a final solution, which by itself doesn’t work, and which allows them to carry on business as usual with a clean green conscience. As a paper published in the 2010 Proceedings of the Royal Society dryly concludes: “Efforts to reduce the flow of plastic to the seas face formidable technological and economic obstacles.” We’ve been at sea a week now, bounced and wallowed and puked a thousand miles in foul weather, and the eyesore of macro-rubbish has yet to appear. I was prepared to be amazed and appalled like Captain Moore, and, well, it’s human nature to feel oddly disappointed when our worst fears fail to materialize. Maybe tomorrow we’ll strike the mother lode. Do I give a shit? I have succumbed to the surreality of never-ending discombobulation, the lurch in the dark, the ponging from wall to wall, the spilled drink and the piss on your foot, and have sunk into a funk. In my potato sack of a bunk, I’m listening to the wind shriek and the hull boom like a bass drum and re-reading my favorite passages from Moby Dick. Like Queequeg, I’m fashioning my coffin from literary references. Here’s Ahab addressing the crew of the Pequod, freaking them out with his bizarre neo-Platonism and Shakespearean diction: “Hark ye yet again”—says he—the little lower layer.” (I love that.) “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” That’s creepy enough, a double vision of a dual world with a hostile underpinning. '"Malice sewing it,” as Ahab says. A world where every solution is a problem in disguise. But hark ye: Ahab is an oilman. He hunts the purest energy source of his day, the spermaceti. Proto-petroleum, solar juice in a big sentient package. It was bloody savage work. Our contemporary oilmen have lost the blood but perhaps not the savagery, not on the nano-level—“the little lower layer”—where petroleum by-products wreak their havoc. The Whole Human Race: Checkmate I scrounge around in my bunk-side library for another volume: Tristes Tropique. With impeccable logic, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss beats the drum of doom, prophesizing the dangers of economic growth on a global scale. He sees industrial civilization as the unparalleled agent of entropy, breaking down complex structures into simpler forms—as a marsh becomes a parking lot, a winding river a canal—until, at the height of human success, every niche has been exploited, every gap filled. The monolithic monoculture grinds to a halt, one giant gear with nothing left to grab. He goes on, into the realm of lucid paranoia (as if taking dictation from a spaceship), to speak of a “progressive welding together of humanity and the physical universe, whose great deterministic laws, instead of remaining remote and awe-inspiring, now use thought itself as an intermediary medium and are colonizing us on behalf of a silent world of which we have become the agents.” Say quoi, mon frère? Is Levi-Strauss’s “silent world” the same entity as Melville’s “unknown but still reasoning thing”? The two great pessimists seem to evoke a kind of cosmic accounting in a universal ledger book. Therein is writ the actual costs of civilization. Of the Anthropocene. We take. “It” records. And then It moves in response, this sentient jelly of All. Check. And checkmate. Plastic, And Its Burden Of POPs Indeed I’m suffering some cosmic claustrophobia, imagining the ever-expanding oceanic garbage patches silently exuding strings of indestructible polymerizing molecules into every living thing and all the spaces between them. In a subtler, more devious poisoning than the starving of the albatross, we would hardly sense our altered biochemistry until it was too late. In my conversation with Curtis Ebbesmeyer, he suggested a thought experiment: Make a list of crises and put them in order of which is most likely to end humanity. Global warming? Acidification of water? A meteor? Supervolcano? For a short-term extinction event, Ebbesmeyer’s hunch was plastic. Plastic, and its burden of POPs, would travel up the food chain via fish, concentrating in the apex predators—a dwindling few killer whales, porpoises, tuna, and us. Plus, it’s all around us anyway, beginning with baby’s sippy cup. In our daily lives, we are practically plastic-wrapped. Ebbesmeyer referred me to the book The Feminization of Nature, by Deborah Cadbury, for a comprehensive look at endocrine-disrupting and estrogen-mimicking chemicals. Whether diphenyl and bisphenol, virtually all commercially available plastics leach synthetic estrogens and may be contributing to a host of health problems; indeed, it’s already happening. One’s grandfather’s penis was, on average, two centimeters longer; our grandmothers hit puberty at age 17; their granddaughters at age 12: Estrogen-saturated parody adults—a final joke before extinction. Sperm counts are down 50 percent since the 1950s. “In another 50 years, we may not be able to reproduce,” Ebbesmeyer said. In the endgame, we’ll be a race of sexed-up tweener girls and sterile dudes with little dicks wandering baffled through a rubbish-filled world. Then those poor mismatched souls will grow old and die—end of the story. I put out my light and fret in the dark, ever on the verge of being pitched onto the floor of the rolling Sea Dragon, until I’m alerted to the jingle-jangle of safety gear approaching down the dark hallway. It’s Watch Team C come to rouse us. “Rise and shine, Buckminister,” I hear. “We depend on you, mate.” Watch Team A congregates at the clothes closet by the gangway stairs and begins pulling out our salt-stiffened foul-weather overalls, bouncing wearily off the walls as we dress. Above is the worst squall yet, with gusts close to 40 knots. It has Captain Clive’s attention. He’s at the wheel, a bearded English gnome, looking superbly calm. After all, he’s skippered around the Horn through the brutal Roaring Forties. He directs Marcus and me to winch in the mainsail—“A bit more, a bit more, just a bit more, please; there, perfect, thank you.” A small, Routine Act Of Heroism But the storm does threaten the data stream. Up to now, Marcus has taken a trawl sample at least every 60 miles. In the 1,200 miles we’ve now sailed, we’ve crossed through the northern portion of the southern gyre—and a section at least of what could’ve been the South Atlantic Garbage Patch. But the seas are vast, the patches protean, and perhaps mostly sunken, below visibility or the reach of the trawl. We haven’t wasted our efforts, though: Marcus’s closet-sized lab next to the galley is filling up with specimen jars of swirling plastic dust bunnies. There are plenty of samples to analyze back home in a real lab. Still, we haven’t hit that motherlode of rubbish, and it’s looking like we’re not going to. Recommended:  Waste In Oceans: Plastic Soup And The Great Bubble Barrier After a couple of hours of fitful, shouted conversation, Marcus confers with Captain Clive. We’ve got to turn back. That at least entails a few minutes of exciting sail trimming, but I’m groaning inwardly. I’m aching for us to turn north and make for Ascension Island, terra firma. Instead, we’re going to sail west for six hours, and lose a half day’s progress, at least. It’s sound science, of course, and a small, routine act of heroism. I’m growing increasingly convinced that Marcus — once one of the most gung-ho marines imaginable, a man who battled through post-traumatic stress to become a grassroots activist battling for human rights — has been bred by the times to fight the motherfucking Blob. He was just 16 when he persuaded his mother to accompany him to the Marine recruiting office. His boyhood heroes were the Vietnam vets in his blue-collar neighborhood, and once in uniform himself, he loved the Corps. Loved it with pure love. He became that shining thing, the edge of the sword; the Corps felt that love and named him Marine of the Year in 1989. Then he saw combat. In his stories of the First Gulf War, all roads lead to the Highway of Death, the road to Basra on which the Iraqi army in retreat was slaughtered by coalition airpower. He made four visits to the battle site. “The first time, I was cautious, picking my way through the wreckage,” Marcus says. “But by the last time, I was kicking grenades out of my path. I didn’t believe I could be killed. I didn’t care if I was. I was in despair.” Photo by Courtesy 5 Gyres Institute An Inveterate Collector He’d always been an inveterate collector—in his boyhood, he amassed 96 turtles in the pond he dug in his mother’s backyard (that same backyard is now the repository of 5,000 pounds of dinosaur bones)—and at war, he filled up three duffel bags with various oddities like black scorpions and a camel spider, and the ubiquitous abandoned war materiel. Marines pride themselves on their resourceful scavenging—“rat-fucking” is the flexible term. In an abandoned Iraqi bunker, he rat-fucked a phone book-sized British catalog of weaponry advertising everything from fighter jets and submarines to ammunition of every caliber. It was a light bulb moment for the young marine. He perceived the global military-industrial complex overarching the petty squabbles of sovereign states. Stuff was in the saddle and rode us. And there it all was—tons of it anyway—on the Highway of Death, thousands of blasted vehicles in a frozen traffic jam. He saw things there he can never forget—men charred and blown to bits; a dead soldier on whose desiccated face the mustache was peeling off so that it flapped in the wind like a little flag. Earlier in the war, he and his unit had come across a dead Iraqi who’d been cut nearly in half by shrapnel. “He had been blown about 30 feet from his jeep, which was incinerated,” Marcus remembers. “His stomach was open, his guts hanging out, and he had obviously tried to stand and had fallen back, but before he died, he waved his arms in the sand. It was just pain and the throes of death, but he made these wings in the sand, like the way kids make snow angels.” Years later, still struggling to fit back into civilian life—“I chose books over the bottle; I sequestered myself, slept in university libraries”—Marcus created a life-sized sculpture of the fallen man out of 70,000 steel ball bearings. “It took me three years to weld them all together,” he tells me. “I chose steel because of what I know about desert warfare. Nothing moves but steel, sand, and flesh; they cut through each other.” Photo by Sergio Izquierdo Making art and earning advanced degrees—his Ph.D. from USC is in science education—got him through the worst years of readjustment. But the saber-rattling buildup to the second Iraq war stirred up all the old nihilism and angst. Bad memories came surging back, along with a promise he’d made with one of his New Orleans homeboys from his reserve unit. They’d been stuck in a foxhole together, artillery flying by overhead, just two miserable young men trying to take their minds off the horrors they’d seen. They swore to each other that if they made it home alive, they were going to build a raft and float down the Mississippi like Huckleberry Finn. In August 2003, Eriksen launched Bottle Rocket, a little catamaran with plastic bottle pontoons, an old Mustang seat, and two bicycles cannibalized to drive a paddle wheel. He started in Minnesota and didn’t reach the Gulf until February of 2004. That self-imposed ordeal helped him reclaim his fighting spirit. He was homing in on his real adversaries. He writes: “Become mentally prepared, factual and thoughtful, about principles of human rights and sustainability. Become a force of greater persuasion. Choose justice, choose your army, find your students, know your enemy, and then prepare yourself with clenched fists.” The World Without Us We’ve sailed out of the storm and into the sunshine and stately blue swells, ranks, and parades of them. Captain Clive has overseen the foresail's furling and the reefing of the main so that Marcus can put out his low-speed Manta trawl. It gurgles along companionably off the starboard rail. The women are hanging out their sink-washed laundry, and some of us men are taking much-needed showers. The sun has dispelled my funk, and the former sense of impending doom now seems a fantasy. Recommended:  Society Collapse: Climate Change, The Environment Or Us? By late afternoon we have turned north, running with the swells toward Ascension Island, at some point crossing the invisible band of the gyre, leaving behind the plastic accumulation zone. Except for some minor housekeeping calamities as we changed course—everything tilted to starboard shifted to port—nothing much has changed—nothing you can see, anyway. Plastic trash pollution on the beach of Labuan Bajo, Indonesia But the trawls tell the tale, with a marked decrease in plastic particles. We’re out of the Patch. The last couple of days, I’ve been reading The World Without Us, a book-length thought experiment describing how the Earth might recover from the damage humans have wrought. The chapter on plastic pollution describes Charles Moore’s first voyage through the Great Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch as if his ship were an icebreaker plowing through floes of rubbish. Hyperbole? Not really, Moore later told me. The patch can be thick like that. It can look like a parking lot after a football game. Pilots of small planes have flown over visible windrows of trash in the north Pacific for hundreds of miles. And Curtis Ebbesmeyer has heard from sailors that the South Atlantic Gyre has its dense blights as well. “I don’t know if you were expecting to see an island of trash, an endless vista of rubbish,” Marcus says to me a couple of days later, sensing my skepticism as I regard the final haul from the Silver Surfer, in sight of the black volcanic hills of Ascension Island: three tiny chips of plastic. “What you saw is the reality of what garbage patches are. It’s an issue that’s invisible to the naked eye until you are looking down at the water and you see speck go by, and then another. You put your net in the water, and you drag it for two miles, and you have a handful of confetti. That’s the garbage patch, and that’s more sinister than the misconceptions that have been created.” It takes a whole frustrating day to clear customs, but at least we’re anchored in a calm and scenic bay, and our advance party brings back wine for a celebration. Once afoot on Ascension Island, Marcus takes off into the backcountry. He’s burning with curiosity about the marine debris he might find on the remote windward shore. I follow along practically at a jog, the relief of being off the boat making me effusive. I’m babbling to his back as we goat-foot across a field of volcanic rock, telling him the Buddhist fable of Prince Five Weapons and his fight with the Sticky ogre Hair. The ogre guards a forest and kills all who enter, but the prince is undeterred. He meets the monster, and they fight. Prince Five Weapons strikes with his sword, and his sword arm sticks to Sticky Hair. He attacks with his mace, and that arm sticks, too. It kicks with one boot. Sticks. Another boot. Sticks. Nothing left to do but head-butt the brute. But his head sticks fast, also. So there they are, prince and monster, joined in five ways. “Of course,” I go on, didactically—thinking at the same time that if I twist an ankle, I’m going to have to be helicoptered out of this rock field—“Sticky Hair represents the phenomenal world, the “ten thousand things,” as the Buddhists say. And he’s Prince Five Weapons—the five senses that bind us to the world with desire. But he‘s also the Buddha, and you can‘t catch the freakin’ Buddha. He’s got a secret weapon. I forget what it is.” We’re skidding down a mountainside now, scree surfing. “Detachment!” I say. “I think.” Marcus is amused. “Right. Detachment is why I love rafting. You detach from everything.” Death Disguised As Santa Claus We’ve made it down to the coast to a little cove. And here at last, in this lonely spot, about as far from the rat race as you can travel, is a mother lode of plastic—jugs, jars, barrels, deodorant applicators, a doll’s leg, nets, and floats. We spend the next half hour gathering and arranging debris into a haphazard sculpture for photographing. Marcus is collecting cigarette lighters for a future project—a paddleboard of Bics. I’m thinking, you know, it was good shit, plastic. It answered many “how-to” questions and occasioned a remarkable efflorescence, an unprecedented burst of wealth. Maybe Plastic is Death disguised as Santa Claus—something for everyone from the ever-expanding plastic sack—but certainly, this would be a harsh planet without the plastic used in our technology. Maybe a good motto for homo sapiens as a species is, Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty archeological record. Our stratum will be a bright, shiny smear of plastic. Recommended:  Plastic Out Oceans: Competition For Boyan Slat Picking up a Pez dispenser with a Donald Duck head on top, I think how plastic answered a lot of “why not?” questions, too. Why not all the plastic toys that were the delight of my childhood. Wiffle balls and plastic bats and Rock them Sock them, Robots. Remembering the robots’ close-quarters combat jogs my memory of Buddha and Sticky Hair. It wasn’t “detachment” per se that made the Enlightened One invulnerable. It was the human mind, an organ more “plastic” than even plastic. I tell this to Dr. Marcus, but he’s already on to it. “Right,” he says, regarding the pile of rubbish we’ve accumulated, his arms akimbo. “I think we’re on the brink of an age of rationality. Where we have the discipline to realize it’s ethical to be rather than to have. To get by with less. The Age of Rationality. That’s what I want to help usher in.” Cover photo by Alex Haley .'Ocean Clean Sweep,' An Bang Beach, Hoi An, Vietnam Before you go! Recommended:  Solar Panel Recycling: Photovoltaics Rebirth Like to write your article about plastic garbage in the oceans? Send your writing & scribble with a photo to  [email protected] , and we will write an interesting article based on your input.
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