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Paper or Plastic?

Ever wonder where the plastic bags of the world end up?

Some of them are recycled, many get one-way tickets on garbage trucks to landfills and a good amount of them end up wandering the world, blown by the wind and floating on water. Some of these world-wandering bits of plastic will end up in the strangest places. Would you believe, absorbed into the bodies of jellyfish in the middle of the ocean?

How is this possible?

OK, let’s say you’re at the Delaware Avenue Price Chopper in Albany and you notice out in the parking lot a plastic bag inscribed with the supermarket’s name swirling in a strong wind, rising into the sky. (Price Chopper recently ended its plastic-bag collection program so you may actually see more of these bags taking to the wind.) The bag rises up to the height of the power lines, twists, puffs out and heads east down Park Avenue, occasionally pausing to embrace a telephone pole or car bumper. Over a few days time, the windblown piece of plastic zigzags erratically along the streets, passes under the raised traffic of I-787 and ends its flight with a gentle belly flop into the Hudson River.

The bag then heads south with the sway of the river current, bobbing along over weeks. Eventually it floats under the George Washington Bridge, out into New York Harbor and past the Statue of Liberty before heading slowly out to sea. The Price Chopper bag floats out into the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, where it becomes a tiny light dot alone in a vast dark sea.

While you may begin to feel pangs of empathy for our forlorn bag’s solitary journey, don’t despair. Our wandering wad of plastic will meet up with others of its kind as it drifts for years along the Atlantic’s windblown currents. Assuming it avoids being swallowed by a whale or turtle or otherwise ingested, our bag may eventually bob up in the center of the northern Atlantic gyre.

A gyre is a circular or spiral ocean current driven by the winds that push warm tropical air toward our planet’s poles. The Atlantic and Pacific are each broken into large northern and southern gyres separated by the equator. In the North Atlantic gyre, our lonely bag will not be alone. If recent research is any indication, our local bag will encounter a diversity of plastic kin from all sorts of sources.

In the November issue of Natural History magazine, Charles Moore recounts his encounters with oceangoing plastic in the North Pacific gyre. At the center of these massive clockwise-rotating bodies of water and air are relatively calm zones where debris tends to collect. It was in this calm center that Moore analyzed seafaring plastic.

In research first published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin back in 2001, Moore and his co-researchers reported finding 6 pounds of plastic for every pound of naturally present plankton. According to Moore, “a fourth of the planet’s surface area has become an accumulator of floating plastic debris.”

Plankton are the solar-powered microscopic life that support much of the food chain, and they live near the water’s surface. As plastic floats on the water it is exposed to sunlight: Over the years it will degrade, becoming brittle and breaking into small fragile pieces, competing with plankton for space, and becoming an unwanted food additive for plankton eaters.

According to research by environmental geochemist Hideshige Takada and his colleagues at Tokyo University, floating plastic fragments can act as sponges, concentrating toxic chemicals like DDT and PCBs that may be present in the water. While the magnitude of plastic trash floating in the oceans is overwhelming, it may also be far more toxic than previously thought.

When Moore found jellyfish with fragments of colorful plastic in their bodies, the implications for the food chain became dramatically clear. Small bits of toxic plastics were being eaten by the jellyfish, which in turn are eaten by fish and other sea creatures. It was a striking visual example of how plastic can enter the food chain, concentrating toxic substances as it moves up successive links in the chain.

A photo by Cynthia Vanderlip that accompanies Moore’s article provides another example of the casualties of seaborne plastics. The picture is a close-up of the skeleton of a Laysan albatross, surrounded by what were once vibrant wing feathers. The observer quickly notes that this picture is something more than just a skeletonized sea bird.

Inside the bird’s ribs, in an area corresponding to the bird’s digestive system, is a concentration of dozens of bottle caps and other pieces of plastic that likely contributed to the bird’s death. Reflecting on this photo, I thought about how when the bones and feathers of this bird have finally weathered into the sands, the plastic inside will be all that remains, perhaps to become death-inducing food for another albatross. Some researchers have estimated that these plastics can remain a threat to the environment for 500 years or longer.

So, what will happen to our sea-bound plastic Price Chopper bag?

Perhaps it will get brittle in the sun as it floats in the doldrums of the North Atlantic gyre, crumbling into a fine snow of plastic. These plastic bits may then concentrate toxic chemicals from the seawater before being sucked into a jellyfish gut or mistakenly devoured by other sea life. From there, it may make its way on up the food chain. And, who knows, some day, tiny fragments of our wayward bag may return home to the Albany store from which it first flew—in the bodies of fresh and frozen fish.

It certainly adds a new dimension to the perennial supermarket checkout question: “Plastic or paper?”

Go for the paper! Paper grocery bags can be recycled through local paper-recycling programs and work as great containers for collecting the other papers you recycle.

—Tom Nattell

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