Did you guys see Captain Charles Moore on the David Letterman show Monday night? He laid it all out — the complete picture of what our plastic waste is doing to the ocean and ultimately the food we eat and the climate we depend on — in his usual direct style. I’m amazed that Letterman devoted the entire last two segments of the show to this comprehensive discussion and handled it very seriously. If you didn’t see it, please take some time and watch it now.
Here are some of the main points from the first segment, which for some of you will be review and for others will be revelation:
- The trash in the North Pacific Gyre (Great Pacific Garbage Patch) is not a “floating island” as so many people think but is more dispersed. It’s more like a soup than an island.
- The trash is 90% plastic.
- The trash has been accumulating ever since the dawn of the disposable plastic age in the 1950’s.
- 25% of the trash is debris from ships, but 75% of it comes from land-based sources.
- After just 3 days of tracking trash down the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers, Captain Moore found 2.3 billion pieces of trash weighing 30 tons on its way to the ocean.
- Plastic in the sea is a source of pollutants as well as a sponge.
- As a source, plastic in the ocean breaks down into smaller pieces via photodegradation, and the sea water leaches softeners (often toxic phthalates) out of it that then pollute the water.
- Like a sponge, plastics soak up other pollutants [like PCB and DDT] from the surrounding sea water which are then ingested by marine animals that mistake it for food.
- Ultimately, we consume these pollutants when we eat fish.
- Plastic bags can smother and bleach coral.
- Plastic has been found throughout the water column, which has an average depth of two miles.
- Plastic in the ocean may interrupt gas transpiration, which is how we sequester CO2.
- There’s a “snowball’s chance in hell” that we can actually clean it up. It would be like sifting the Sahara Desert.
That’s just segment 1.
Moore: You see it in every vacant lot in the cities; we’re creating this new plastic planet.
Letterman: You want a drink?
Moore: Sure, what you got there?
Segment 2 is more of a show-and-tell. Moore shows Letterman a bowl of tiny plastic pieces gathered from Camillo Beach in Hawaii: the new plastic sand, what our beaches are becoming. He also presents a collection of plastic objects that have been swallowed by an albatross chick: cigarette lighters, fishing lures, bottle caps, a tooth brush, comb, golf ball, marker, and various other plastic detritus.
Astute Letterman asks:
People may be saying, “I can get through the day without worrying about an albatross,” but this is really the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it?
Are we just screwed? There’s no getting around it?
Finally, Moore’s last statement at the tail end of the interview gives a sliver of a solution:
We need to make plastic into stuff we really want to last forever. Plastic lasts a long, long time. Let’s make stuff out of it that we want to be around, and if we have to have throwaways, let’s make them completely biodegrade so you can throw them into the compost pile and get rid of them.
Big audience applause. The End.
Whew. I found the interview powerful and yet depressing, and I wondered if the casual, uninformed viewer would come away with a commitment to make a difference or the feeling that we’re “just screwed” so why try? I fear the latter. Which is why I think it’s so important to talk about real world solutions along with such bad news. What steps can Letterman’s viewers take immediately and in the future? If we can’t clean up the Garbage Patch, what can we do?
Here are just a few ideas for stemming the tide of new plastic pollution:
1) Commit to reduce our own plastic consumption as much as possible.
2) Talk to our family and friends about the problem and set an example that others can follow.
3) Support measures in our communities to ban plastic bags and other single-use packaging.
4) Support Extended Producer Responsibility legislation which would require manufacturers to provide for the entire life cycle of their products and remove the burden from communities and local governments. EPR laws in Europe have proven that when companies have to figure out how to recycle their stuff, they end up using fewer, less toxic materials in the first place.
What are some of your ideas? Are there people in your life who are so overwhelmed with the state of the environment that they have thrown up their hands in despair or routinely tune out the bad news? How can we help those in our lives and communities take back their power and actually work for change? How can we encourage others to simply start where they are and take the first step?
These are questions I ask myself every single day, and of course the reason for this blog. But I’d like to hear your ideas. What steps do you take to broaden your reach?