The Seattle City Council last week held a hearing on its new plan to further reduce waste and promote more recycling and reuse. One of the proposals pushed by citizens was to ban Styrofoam use in the city. Another was to require stores to charge for plastic and paper bags to encourage people to bring their own reusable bag.
What the hell, one might ask. What’s the big deal about Styrofoam and plastics? Isn’t Styrofoam just a bunch of small beads of light weight inert plastic particles clumped together to form take out food containers and such? Who ever got killed or even maimed by a Styrofoam food container? Isn’t their benign nature one of the reasons they are used for food?
I remembered reading an article last year on the Internet about Styrofoam particles accumulating in the oceans and being ingested by zoo plankton. Concern was raised about the impact on the food chain.
I decided to look again to see if I could get more information. And now I am much more concerned. The first article I checked out was one that the Seattle Times printed last year in the Pacific Northwest Magazine. The article was entitled “Oceans of Waste – Waves of junk are flowing into the food chain”
It seems that all the plastic flowing into the sea has created a huge garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean , some 1000 miles across, twice the area of Texas and full of plastic. A researcher named Charles Moore described what he found:
In August 1998, Moore and his crew extensively sampled the surface waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre with a fine-mesh net resembling a manta ray. “What we saw amazed us,” Moore said in an analysis for the 2001 Marine Pollution Bulletin. “We were looking at a rich broth of minute sea creatures mixed with hundreds of colored plastic fragments — a plastic-plankton soup.” The team collected six times more plastic particles (by weight) than zooplankton.
Moore calls the plastic particles “poison pills” because they absorb and concentrate toxic chemicals, acting like sponges for DDT, PCBs and other oily pollutants. “It’s a serious situation,” he says, “when you’ve got a material that comes in all shapes and sizes, can mimic every type of food in the sea, and is capable of absorbing persistent pollutants that are endocrine disruptors. . . . One hundred thousand marine mammals a year are killed by entanglement (with plastic six-pack rings, fishing lines and nets); I’m not minimizing that. But the actual ability to wipe out the entire vertebrate kingdom in the ocean is with the plastic particles.”
In an interview in Satyya Magazine on line just last month Moore again emphasized the concern:
“…most of this garbage is salt-shaker stuff, the breakdown of plastic products. When we trawl a net, we get a kaleidoscope of different colored little plastic particles, mostly whites and blues. We think the reds are taken by birds and fish because they look like shrimp. And inside the garbage patch we’ve found over six times as much plastic as plankton. While outside it’s over three times as much plastic as plankton. So if you’re a fish trying to choose whether something is food or not, you can easily be confused. Gelatinous plankton feeders are heavily impacted by this. Then they’re eaten by fish, birds and turtles and so it accumulates up the food chain. And [the plastic particles are not] just indigestible, they are also a sponge for toxics, so it’s like poison pills being ingested.”
In a study Moore did for the state of California he found that some 80% of the plastic waste originated from the land. Only 10% originated from industrial sources. The rest is going into the ocean from household and municipal waste and storm runoff. Some 87 % of the particles going down rivers were less than 5mm in diameter.
In an August 6, 2006 LA Times article on our altered oceans they note that industrial spills of larger plastic pellets are also occurring.
“The pellets, like most types of plastic, are sponges for oily toxic chemicals that don’t readily dissolve in water, such as the pesticide DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Some pellets have been found to contain concentrations of these pollutants 1 million times greater than the levels found in surrounding water.
As they absorb toxic chemicals, they become poison pills. Wildlife researchers have found the pellets, which resemble fish eggs, in the bellies of fish, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals.
Over time, plastic can break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually turning to powder and entering the ocean in microscopic fragments. Some plastic starts out as tiny particles, such as the abrasives in cleaning products that are washed down the sink, through sewage systems and out to sea.
The chemical components of plastics and common additives can harm animals and humans. Studies have linked the hormone-mimicking phthalates, used to soften plastic, to reduced testosterone and fertility in laboratory animals, and to subtle changes in the genitals of baby boys. Another additive, bisphenol A, used to make lightweight, heat-resistant baby bottles and microwave cookware, has been linked to prostate cancer.”
In another recent article entitled “Our oceans are turning into plastic … are we? ” for Best Life Magazine, the discussion continues, noting it’s not just the toxins that adhere to plastics in the ocean that enter our food chain that are of concern, it’s also the toxic chemicals that are used in making plastic that we are exposed to:
“…there’s growing—and disturbing—proof that we’re ingesting plastic toxins constantly, and that even slight doses of these substances can severely disrupt gene activity. “Every one of us has this huge body burden,” Moore says. “You could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100 industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950.” The fact that these toxins don’t cause violent and immediate reactions does not mean they’re benign: Scientists are just beginning to research the long-term ways in which the chemicals used to make plastic interact with our own biochemistry.”
The health and environmental issues involved in plastic production, use and disposal are serious ones that we need to address. If you are likewise concerned I urge that you contact members of the Seattle City Council to urge that they take action to address the growing plastics problem.
Residents urge council panel to ban Styrofoam, end proposed landfill, Seattle PI, 6/8/2007
Policy Options under consideration for possible waste reduction, City of Seattle – 5/21/2007
Forget plastic bags, foam cups if zero-waste strategy adopted, Seattle Times 6/8/2007