Thursday, September 27, 2007

Frontiers in Ecology: Plastic Waste in Oceans Poisoning People?

The term "nurdle" may sound cute, but in reality, these cylindrical shaped plastic pellets used in manufacturing and packaging are making a big mess of the health of our oceans -- and probably of people who eat fish.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Kathy Ellison, reports in the September, 2007 issue of Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment:

For marine life, nurdles can be poison pills. They look like fish eggs, yet soak up and concentrate toxic pollutants such as PCBs. Tokyo University geochemist Hideshige Takada has found that plastic pellets eaten by birds concentrate toxic chemicals to as high as one million times their normal levels in seawater.

Of course, birds aren't the only victims. At the University of Plymouth, marine biologist Richard Thompson points out that nurdles and other plastic trash inevitably break down, through the force of tides and ultraviolet light, into ever-tinier fragments. He has found some pieces as small as 20 microns - smaller than an human hair -- which are easily consumed by some of the sea's most diminutive creatures. He assumes the plastic bits, which decompose but don't ever biodegrade, are eventually ground down into powder, which can be swallowed even by zooplankton. Scientists have yet to pinpoint the impact on the marine food web or on people who eat fish that have eaten nurdles and other nurdle-eaters. But I think it's fair to say that it doesn't look good for those of us at the top of the food chain.

Amazingly, as Ellison reports, a prominent marine biologist reveals that, "the plastic outweighs the plankton 6 to 1 in the central Pacific, and 2.5 to 1 in the surface waters of southern California."

Fortunately, officials are starting to take action to curtail the use of nurdles and nurdle-related materials. In addition to a bill making its way through the California State legislature, Santa Monica and San Francisco have banned Styrofoam for restaurant take-out. San Francisco recently became the first US city to ban plastic bags.

Unfortunately, it turns out that biodegradable plastics (which we've previously gotten excited about and used at Conservation Value Institute's benefit events) aren't even the answer. Reports Ellison:

As Alan Weisman recounts in his new book, The World Without Us...biodegradable plastics...(are) a mixture of cellulose and polymers. Once the cellulose starch breaks down, thousands of clear, nearly invisible plastic particles remain.

So what's the answer?

Ellison notes the recommendation of marine biologist, Thompson, that "reducing, reusing, and recycling is the answer (to keeping all these plastics out of the oceans)," adding that, "he'd support a ban on those billions of plastic bottles with non-recyclable caps."

No comments:

Post a Comment