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Blog

One Word. Plastics.

Adam Krause

In The Graduate, at a party given by his parents to celebrate his recent graduation, Benjamin Braddock is pulled aside for an important talk about his future by a man named Mr. McGuire.

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Benjamin: Yes I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shhh. Enough said. That’s a deal.

The Graduate was released in 1967. Fifty years later, Mr. McGuire’s advice has not aged well.

Henderson Island, a remote and uninhabited island in the South Pacific, which we might assume would be pristine, has at least 38 million pieces of plastic that have washed up on it—bits of plastic in which crabs often make their homes. Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies “has found hundreds of crabs living in rubbish such as bottle caps and cosmetics jars, and has been told of one living inside a doll’s head.”

And very deep ocean waters, such as the Mariana Trench “have been considered as pristine environments, but also (given their locations and topography) as likely sinks for contaminants that enter the marine environment,” according to Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University. Jamieson found PCPs and PBDEs, two particularly toxic POPs (persistent organic pollutants) at incredible depths there.  As he writes, “The salient finding was that PCBs and PBDEs were present in all samples across all species at all depths.”  

So from remote islands to the deepest seas, plastic is present. We produce it. We discard it. It sticks around. It gets everywhere.

A paper published by The Royal Society states, “Within just a few decades since mass production of plastic products commenced in the 1950s, plastic debris has accumulated in terrestrial environments, in the open ocean, on shorelines of even the most remote islands and in the deep sea.” This debris often breaks down in the presence of UV light. But “breaking down” does not mean “going away.” And when plastic breaks down, it can become even more dangerous. As the paper goes on to state, “Some of the first evidence of accumulation of plastic fragments in the environment came indirectly from examination of the gut contents of sea birds in the 1960s. Later, in the early 1970s, small fragments of plastic were observed in seawater collected with plankton samples from the North Sea and were subsequently reported on much broader scales in the northwestern Atlantic.” These small fragments are much more difficult to remove and can be ingested by a wider range of organisms. Moreover, due to their greater surface area to volume ratio, tiny pieces of plastic can also have greater levels of toxicity.

It is hard to express how terrible this is for wildlife. To try to get some idea, here’s a long passage from José Derraik in The Marine Pollution Bulletin cataloging just some of the dangers: “Seabirds with large plastic loads have reduced food consumption, which limits their ability to lay down fat deposits, thus reducing fitness. Connors and Smith (1982) had previously reached the same conclusion, as their study indicated that the ingestion of plastic particles hindered formation of fat deposits in migrating red phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicarius), adversely affecting long-distance migration and possibly their reproductive effort on breeding grounds. Spear et al. (1995) however, provided probably the first solid evidence for a negative relationship between number of plastic particles ingested and physical condition (body weight) in seabirds from the tropical Pacific. Other harmful effects from the ingestion of plastics include blockage of gastric enzyme secretion, diminished feeding stimulus, lowered steroid hormone levels, delayed ovulation and reproductive failure (Azzarello and Van-Vleet, 1987). The ingestion of plastic debris by small fish and seabirds for instance, can reduce food uptake, cause internal injury and death following blockage of intestinal tract (Carpenter et al., 1972; Rothstein, 1973; Ryan, 1988; Zitko and Hanlon, 1991).” The list goes on. The dangers of plastics are legion.

A few days ago, on “World Emoji Day,” which is already one of the dumbest things imaginable, someone at Exxon decided it would be great to join in the fun and post this to their Twitter page:

In addition to my own emoji-heavy reply, many others joined in the pictographic fun, mocking Exxon’s attempts to make its business appear anything other than evil. But there were some replies that I found quite confusing. In this two-parter, someone called “Connor” says, “Using fossil fuels to create plastic is a lot different than using them for energy that is burned releasing harmful emissions so I’m against using fossil fuel for energy [because] of emissions and the fact that there are clean alternatives. Using them for plastic is fine.”

Using fossil fuels for plastic is not “fine.” Plastics are causing irreparable damage to the planet. Everything made from fossil fuels needs to go. The negative side effects of digging up oil to make anything overwhelm any possible positives. Too much damage has already been done. Connor is wrong and so is Mr. McGuire. Plastic is a terrible invention.

So in my first attempt at fan fiction, please allow me to rewrite that scene from The Graduate:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: Actually, never mind, what I was going to say was really dumb.

Benjamin: OK.

The rest of the movie is fine.

-Adam Michael Krause