You’ve probably already heard about the Japanese tsunami debris making its way across the ocean and the 66-foot long dock that washed ashore on the Oregon coast last week. (According to NOAA, the debris is unlikely to be radioactive, by the way.)
The dock is a story in and of itself, but what made me realize it was also a story about plastic was the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s June 8 press release requesting bids for removal of the dock:
Salem, OR — The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has reviewed options for removing the tsunami debris dock at Agate Beach. The department originally intended to pursue either of two options — demolition in place, or towing it off the beach to the nearby Port of Newport — but has since discovered the range of costs for these options overlaps. The reinforced concrete dock contains a large amount of styrofoam, making clean demolition a challenge and increasing the costs for that option.
Can you imagine the mess from demolition of that much Styrofoam? Lots of tiny pieces of polystyrene let loose into the environment. I can imagine it because, in fact, I see it at the Green Festival every year.
Is Eco-Struction Building Material Really Eco?
Eco-Struction is a company that designs and builds structures using Reclaimed Polystyrene ICF-Insulated Concrete Form Block. They show the product at the Green Festival every year.
You might think this is a great way to recycle Styrofoam, but check this out. Every single year, I can’t help noticing the bits of flaked off polystyrene foam on the floor surrounding the demo. And every year, I feel compelled to take pictures of it.
These plastic particles are getting into the environment even before construction is completed. I assume that the finished structure will be coated so that the foam will not continue to flake off. But what happens to all that polystyrene when the building reaches the end of its life? Nothing lasts forever. Not a house or a building or even a 66-foot dock.
A Problem With Recycling Plastic
I’ve discussed many of the drawbacks to plastic recycling on this blog and in my book. One thing to keep in mind is that plastic recycling is always downcycling. Plastic cannot be recycled an unlimited number of times because each time, the molecules lose strength. That same thing happens with a material like paper, but paper will finally biodegrade and return to the earth when it reaches the point where it can no longer be recycled. But those molecules of plastic will remain in the environment for a very long time, possibly releasing toxic chemicals and accumulating in the soil and water.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t recycle plastic or that we shouldn’t find uses for the plastic that’s already here. But what I am saying is that the only real, sustainable solution to the plastic pollution problem is to stop creating so much of it in the first place. And to really consider what’s going to happen to all those recycled styrofoam buildings or recycled bottle carpets and polar fleece (which also sheds miscroplastics into the environment) or recycled bag decking material. Most of these things do not get further recycled and yet will linger on the planet for a very long time.