The New York Times Magazine
had a feature story
yesterday on marine debris, focusing on how plastic is reaching remote coasts in Alaska.
It's sad to see so much plastic trash spoiling this wilderness. No one lives in Gore Point, Alaska -- yet, in two weeks, nine volunteers managed to collect 30 tons of debris there, most of it plastic. Who's responsible? What can we do to stop it? The Times
asks lot of questions, and does a good job of putting it all into perspective.
For example, it introduces readers to Charles Moore, the oceanographer who deserves much of the credit for publicizing the "Garbage Patch," and then the story points out that his work is "somewhat controversial."
Even marine biologists who share his alarm have misgivings about the sensationalism with which the Garbage Patch is sometimes described. Since the plastic debris in the North Pacific convergence zone is spread out unevenly across millions of miles of ocean, and since most of it is fragmentary, flowing through the water column like dust through air, the Garbage Patch bears little resemblance to a floating junkyard. But it is, numerous scientists assured me, very much for real.
Beth Flint's nuanced testimony was typical. Flint is a wildlife biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. One seabird she studies is the Laysan albatross, which, thanks to a recent Greenpeace ad campaign, has become plastic pollution's most famous victim — its poster bird, if you will. The ad shows a photograph in which a slimy casserole of bottle caps, cigarette lighters and unidentifiable plastic shards spills from the downy belly of a necropsied Laysan albatross chick. “How to starve to death on a full stomach,” the caption reads. The image is not merely powerful, or shocking; it's persuasively accusatory. Look, dear consumer, it seems to say; look at what you've done, look where what you throw away ends up.
There's only one problem, Flint says. No one knows for certain whether plastic killed the albatross. Do plastic shards perforate the intestines of chicks? Sometimes. Does plastic obstruct the digestive tract or make a bird “starve to death with a full stomach”? Probably, in some cases. Then again albatrosses eat squid, and chitonous squid beaks are also indigestible. Are the toxins in and on plastics poisoning the birds, as Moore has proposed? It wouldn't be surprising. According to Flint, long-lived seabirds like albatrosses do indeed have alarmingly high contaminant burdens. But research into the pathology of plastic poisoning is ongoing, and in the meantime, “it's still all sort of circumstantial.”
Despite these caveats, Flint has little doubt that plastic is “clearly not good” for seabirds, and her praise for Moore is unequivocal. “I think that he's done a tremendously valuable service to humanity by pursuing this when none of the big oceanographic or academic institutions or government institutions did,” Flint said. She predicts that other researchers will soon “get on his bandwagon.”
Later in the story, author Donovan Hohn looks how to deal with marine debris. Is there a solution?
As nearly everyone I spoke to about marine debris agrees, the best way to get trash out of our waterways is, of course, to keep it from entering them in the first place. But experts disagree about what that will take. The argument, like so many in American politics, pits individual freedom against the common good. “Don't you tell me I can't have a plastic bag,” Seba Sheavly, the marine-debris researcher, says, alluding to plastic-bag bans like the one San Francisco enacted last year. “I know how to dispose of it responsibly.” But proponents of bag bans insist that there is no way to use a plastic bag responsibly. Lorena Rios, an environmental chemist at the University of the Pacific, says: “If you go to Subway, and they give you the plastic bag, how long do you use the plastic bag? One minute. And how long will the polymers in that bag last? Hundreds of years.”
“The time for voluntary measures has long since passed,” says Steve Fleischli, president of Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of environmental watchdogs ...
The statistics quoted in this story will be considered authoritative, and will be repeated. So you can expect the Times
story will raise the heat on the marine debris issue.