Saturday, July 19, 2008


We are harvesting at the beach, no, gleaning is a better word. Recent storms and who knows what have washed a lot of seaweed in. It’s beautiful stuff, not the heavy bladderwrack that filled my childhood in Scotland, or the giant kelp that washed up on the Californian Pacific: these are small bundles of fairy foliage, in reds and metallic blues with tiny globular air sacks, almost like moss. It’s easy to gather, and a bit like a ‘treasure’ chest, for hidden within and amongst the seaweed are many bright colourful objects: plastic trash. We gather a trash bag of plastic for every 2 of seaweed. Rainbows of bottlecaps; toys; shoes; so many straws; nylon rope; bottles, especially those little sample bottles one finds in hotels (or cruise ships??); toothbrushes; wrappers, and then minutia - shreds and shards of plastic.

Plastics, like diamonds, are forever. The pieces we gathered were, in the main, recognizable, and in this tropical sea probably looked enough like colourful fish, to be swallowed by turtles, birds and larger fishes. The shards and shreds, and straws, being smaller were probably being seen as food by smaller sea creatures. The action of waves, water and sun which has ground rock to sand and worn shells to dust, will over time wear plastic pieces into smaller and smaller ‘mouthfuls’ for smaller and smaller ocean species. “Nurdles” the raw materials of plastic production find their way by the billions into the ocean every year, as do polyethylene beads which are increasingly being used as exfoliants in products as diverse as paint scourers and body creams: just the right size and colours to be confused for fish eggs. Plastic particles are small enough to enter the very bottom of the oceanic food chain, eaten by larger creatures plastic trash is accumulating in the stomachs and intestines of most of the world’s sea creatures. In a study of fulmars washed ashore in the North Sea, Richard Thompson (University of Plymouth marine biologist), found 95% had an average of 44 pieces of plastic in their stomachs.

Of course there’s more: from ‘The World Without Us’:

“free-floating toxins from all kinds of sources – copy paper, automobile grease, coolant fluids, old fluorescent tubes, and infamous discharges by General Electric and Monsanto plants directly into streams and rivers – readily stick to the surfaces of free-floating plastic. One study directly correlated ingested plastic with PCBs in the fat tissue of puffins. The astonishing part was the amount . . . the plastic pellets that the birds ate concentrate poisons to levels as high as 1 million times their normal occurrence in seawater.”

What to do? Be aware, be conscious. Don’t buy overpackaged items, support companies which use recycled materials, reuse those recyclables. Avoid plastic bags like the plague . . . and pick up trash.