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
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.