The Perils of Plastic

By Nicole Duncan

Halfway between California and Hawaii floats the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—3.5 million tons of plastic trash, roughly twice the size of Texas. Known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, this 10 million-square-mile vortex of water bottles, plastic bags, and Styrofoam has grown tenfold every decade since the post-WWII plastics boom. Since plastic doesn’t biodegrade—it photodegrades—tiny plastic pellets called nurdles wind up in the ocean and absorb DDT, PCBs, and nonylphenols—oily toxins that won’t dissolve in seawater. These carcinogenic, hormone-disrupting plastic particles are inevitably eaten by birds and fish.

Wondering where these oodles of nurdles come from? Of the roughly 60 billion tons of plastic produced annually in the US, only 3 percent to 5 percent gets recycled. Plastics are designed as disposable, single-use products, and the recycling symbol merely identifies which type of plastic the item is made from. Only two of the seven commonly used plastics have any sort of afterlife: PET, labeled with a 1 inside the triangle and used in soda bottles; and HDPE, labeled with a 2 and used in milk jugs.

So what can you do? The average American tosses 185 pounds of plastic each year, but you can make simple changes to reduce use. Stop buying water bottles, and just refill one bisphenol-A–free bottle that won’t leach chemicals. Store food in resealable glass containers rather than using plastic wrap, and if you buy sandwich bags, wash and reuse them (check out www.bag-e-wash.com). Although it may sound militant, consider bringing food containers to restaurants for leftovers to avoid taking home to-go foam containers, which aren’t recyclable. Be creative, think ahead, and develop your own anti-plastic tactics.