For years, there’s been talk about the oceanic “garbage patch” – that area of the Pacific so saturated with plastic trash and other disposable detritus as to earn its pet name. Plastic bags, cigarette lighters, to-go containers, coffee cup lids – you name it, they’ve been swirling around in this marine Maytag, known as the North Pacific Gyre, since the dawn of synthetics less than a century ago.
Yes, this is a problem for the millions of sea creatures that ingest, choke on, or get strangled by plastic debris. Yes, this poses catastrophic challenges for entire marine ecosystems. Yes, this leads to unsightly waste covering international shores, blighting our beaches, and threatening coastal tourism.
But only recently, the alarming thought first struck: are there plastic particles in our sushi?
Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF), is a wealth of information on the subject. Captain Moore began studying the plastics issue more than 10 years ago, when he discovered a huge swath of the ocean stretching from Santa Monica to Japan filled with trash. Moore and his team of researchers at AMRF have since become recognized as leading authorities on plastic debris, dedicating their efforts to research, education, and solutions. (algalita.org)
Petroleum plastics are completely non-biodegradable, breaking down into increasingly smaller pieces that absorb high concentrations of chemicals like PCBs, DDTs, and PAHs. When marine critters eat these plastic particles, potent chemicals persist in their bodies, becoming super concentrated as they work their way up the food chain. Makes being a top predator seem less of a picnic.
So is there nylon in our Nigiri?
Captain Moore explained the difficulty of attributing chemicals in animal tissue directly to plastic ingestion. While numerous nasty chemicals are added to plastic to give it rigidity, elasticity, and flexibility, these chemicals also come from other sources, entering the ocean via watersheds. Tracing the source of a PCB molecule from a fish liver to a plastic bottle is therefore a tricky business, pending further research.
In the meantime, we do know that the problem of plastic contamination isn’t going anywhere, and is only getting worse. When Captain Moore began his research 10 years ago, he found that plastic outweighed plankton by a factor of six to one. As of October 2007, Moore found the new reality to be a 30:1 ratio – a five-fold increase in less than a decade.
Despite peoples’ natural instinct to want to take a huge net to the problem, the only real solution is to stop using the stuff in the first place. The Pacific Gyre is too vast, and the waste too dispersed to make cleanup a viable option.
On the local level, Santa Monica is taking a proactive role in addressing the issue. Last year, the City introduced a two-phased ordinance to ban polystyrene and non-recyclable plastic food containers from our community, and instead allow only recyclable or compostable materials. Beginning in February 2007, all city facilities, operators, and events made the switch, and come ’08, local businesses are required to follow suit.
Some have begun already. Ahead of the curve, Zabie’s, the Library Alehouse, Border Grill, Ocean Park Café, The Lobster, Euphoria Loves RAWvolution, Urth Café, Café Luxe, The Victorian, and the brand new Grateful Bread are using to-go containers made from corn, potatoes, and sugar cane fibers. No, you can’t eat them, but you can now toss them in the green waste bins – a new development for the city.
More details about the ordinance, including original language, a list of alternative packaging distributors, and local success stories can be found on the City of Santa Monica’s Environmental Programs Division website, smepd.org/container.
As consumers, we can also play an active role in preventing unnecessary disposables from entering the waste stream, fouling our beaches, and quite possibly our spicy tuna rolls:
Avoid disposables altogether by bringing reusable containers to coffee shops, farmers’ markets, and restaurants;
Limit wasteful packaging – purchase products in bulk;
Vote with your pocketbook – support local businesses that are leading the way;
Support nonprofit organizations working on relevant research, policy, and education efforts.