Plastic Never, Ever Goes Away...

 In our travels, we've visited hundreds of beaches and explored thousands of miles of coastline, from California to Panama and to Hawaii.  We've walked the sterile beaches of high-end resorts in Mexico, devoid of anything living above or below the sand except the throngs of human tourists who visit each and every day.  We've explored rocky shores teaming with life in its many varied and wonderful forms on secluded islands in remote islands of Panama and the Gulf of Fonseca that see perhaps a dozen people a year if that.  But in all our travels and on every beach and every shore we have ever visited and over a thousand miles offshore, there is a common constant :  garbage.

Every beach, every shore, from the most visited to the least that we have ever explored has garbage littered along and above the high tide line.  It floats there from near and far, carried by winds and waves and tides.   Some shores, usually near human habitats, are literally covered in it, the debris so thick that you can't see the ground.  But even the most secluded beach on the remotest island has garbage to a greater or lesser extent, strewn along its entire length.  We carry garbage bags with us sometimes when we go ashore and fill them in minutes, taking them back with us to civilization for "proper" disposal in a landfill somewhere, but the clean up task is monumental and getting worse with every passing day.  Why?  Because almost exclusively, that garbage is made of plastic and plastic never goes away.

Plastic and it's close relatives such as Styrofoam, polypropylene and polystyrene, is what we see on every beach on every shore of every place we visit.  Unlike metal or cloth or leather or paper or glass or most of the other substances we humans discard, intentionally or unintentionally, plastic is the garbage that never disappears, never degrades, never goes away.  Most everything else we throw away rusts or bio-degrades or otherwise eventually returns to the inert or organic constitute components from which is was made.  Not plastic.  It may break into smaller pieces, eventually after many years of sand and surf becoming a kind of plastic dust with its own set of problems, but it never, ever really goes away.  I am quite sure that thousands of years from now, future geologists will have no problem recognizing this era in history by the layer of plastic dust in the geological record.

And far from being simply unsightly, plastic kills.  Perhaps you have seen seen the posters at an aquarium or zoo which depict a wild Blue Heron with a plastic 6-pack ring caught in its beak or a sea lion adorned with discarded fishing line cutting into its neck.  They are moving scenes, even when glimpsed in passing on a poster, but we've seen that and more than that with our own eyes.  In particular and all too often, we've discovered the dead bodies of birds and fish and turtles that were killed by plastic.  We find them on the beaches where their bodies wash up.  Sadly, it's a common occurrence to find the rotting corpse of a skeleton of a Brown Pelican or a Giant Puffer Fish or a Bat Ray washed up on shore, surrounding the brightly colored plastic bottle cap or plastic bag that killed it.

So what do we do?  Well, after seeing the global and international extent of the problem first hand, we have become convinced that the problem will not be solved by simple, traditional, US-centric, consumer-side answers.  Many people for example, might call for more stringent laws against littering or more prevalent recycling, but the problem is an international one and many of the worse offenders are countries whose governments cannot even build roads much less afford wide-spread recycling or enforce environmental laws.  What's more, even if every piece of plastic in every country on the planet were properly disposed of, it still lasts forever and some of it would still find it's way into the oceans and onto the beaches.  How?  Here's an example: There are many tens of thousands of small commercial fishermen in Central America, one or two man operations using small boats called pangas and a small outboard motor (the initial cost of both are often subsidized by the large fishing co-op to which they can become essentially indentured and to which they sell their fish exclusively).  They are everywhere (we've encountered these sturdy little open boats over 100 miles offshore!) and we've had many close calls dodging their unlit and often unmarked nets and long-lines, day and night.  These fishermen barely make a living catching what they can from the ocean's dwindling resources and they can barely afford the raw supplies to make their nets and hook their long-lines.  So what do these fishermen use for net or line floats?  You got it: 2-liter plastic beverage bottles.  We've seen hundreds of them at a time, strung every 20 or 30 feet, floating 5-mile long lines, in every sea and gulf we've been in, from Mexico to Costa Rica.  Often the bottles we find on shore have broken fishing line tied to them.

So, we have become convinced that the only real solution that will truly make a difference is one where non-biodegradable plastic simply isn't produced and manufactured in the first place, at least not for everyday consumer items where packaging that lasts forever simply isn't needed.

By far, the most common items we see on the beaches we've visited are plastic beverage bottles.  Other food containers such as plastic milk cartons and butter or cottage cheese style containers are nearly as common as are non-food items such as buckets, milk-crates, bleach bottles, plastic deodorant dispensers, shampoo bottles and plastic 1-quart oil containers.   Plastic shoes (particularly the soles of cheap, gaudy plastic sandals and open-toed shoes popular in warmer climates) also seem to be particularly abundant.  Long after any cloth or leather portion has rotted away, the plastic lives on.

Do these items really need to last so long?  Bio-degradable plastics do exist, the expected lifetimes of which can be tuned in the manufacturing process from months to tens of years or more, depending upon the application and required lifetime.  Why aren't they used?  The only answer we can think of is money - they must cost more to produce - or there may simply be insufficient public, industry and governmental awareness of the issue and subsequently, little demand or pressure for their widespread usage. 

This must change someday.  One day, we hope the world will come to see the utilization of plastics that never degrade to package soda pop or potato chips as inexcusable as using PCBs or DDT or Asbestos is viewed today.  But until that day comes, we have made the personal decision to purchase as little plastic as possible, preferring almost any other packaging option.  We stopped drinking soda pop or only purchase exclusively in cans, even though it can be a more expensive option.  And when the check-out girl asks us "Paper or plastic?", we know how to answer (actually, we bring our own cloth shopping bags when we provision).   The personal satisfaction of knowing we are doing something, even if it is just a couple of consumers making more educated purchasing choices, outweighs any inconvenience or added expense.  After years of exploring beaches and seeing the results of our worldwide plastics industry, we are more aware of the long-term consequences of our own purchasing habits on their environment and on the beaches and wildlife we have come to love.