Plastics ... just one word?

In The Graduate, "plastics" was the word to remember, a future filled with riches, a new, magic portal into the American Dream.

Now, plastics are absolutely everywhere. Along with aluminum cans, empty oxygen tanks, glass, clothes, climbing equipments like tents, paper, food, bloody syringes, medical waste and dead bodies, plastic things are major components of the trash littering the top of Mt. Everest.

At 8848 meters, Mt Everest is the world's tallest, and one of its most remote, trash heaps. Shown here is part of its accumulation of plastic bottles.

In Burkina Faso, 30% of grazing animal deaths are due to ingestion of plastic... usually plastic bags.

Plastic bags? The stuff from grocery stores? Yep. Each year, the world produces 60 billion tons of plastic, including nearly 5,000,000,000,000 (trillion) plastic bags. In the US, 100 billion are thrown away; only 0.6% are recycled.

In New York City alone, nearly 100 million escape the trash cans and blow around until they land in the ocean or rivers. In LA, the Los Angeles river carries enough trash to fill the Rose Bowl two stories high, and most of it escapes into the ocean.

According to the UNEP, there are 46,000 pieces of plastic floating on every square mile of the ocean... about 6 kilos for every kilo of plankton. In the north Pacific, much of that is concentrated in two trash vortices, the Eastern Garbage Patch - in the Hawai'i/Alaska/West Coast "corner" which is the size of Texas - and the Western Garbage Patch - centered around Japan.
Eighty percent of the plastic floating in the ocean actually originated on land. Click here and scroll down to see how it works.

The US EPA notes that plastic grocery bags are energetically less costly to make than paper ones. They are less bulky and take up less space in land fills. They are energetically easier to recycle.

But they never break down. Plastic is forever. Plastic bags in the ocean look like jelly fish and endangered sea turtles can't tell the difference. Floating on the surface, plastic junk looks looks edible to sea birds, who, after millions of years, figure if it is in the ocean, it is food. About the warnings on plastic bags about not letting children play with them? Well, it seems that seals can't read very well.

Mostly, plastic bags are good because they are cheap, but people will choose differently if they have to pay for them. In Ireland, for example, a 15 cent tag on each plastic grocery bag convinced shoppers that other alternatives were more desirable, And now, from San Francisco to Zanzibar, governments are realizing that the costs are greater than manufacture and distribution alone.