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Enduring Trash

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The Problem Of Plastics Pollution

By James Donahue

The plastics industry has become a major part of our lives since World War II. This synthetic material, a by-product of crude oil, appears in everything from women's nylons to golf clubs and the bodies of our cars.

Most of the computer I am using to write this story is comprised of plastic, as is the fabric of the office chair on which I sit, and the material in the carpet under my feet.

Plastic can be made to resemble almost anything. It has been developed to have the strength of iron, and thus is used in the manufacture of more and more automobile parts.

The downside: Plastic has been a relatively inexpensive product to make so it is used for packaging soft drinks, food products, fast foods, drinking straws and a variety of other throw-away items that litter the sides of our roads.

It is used in making garbage, laundry and shopping bags and packaging wrappers that end up in our landfills. Many of the other discarded plastic products that quickly outwear the usefulness show up as part of the refuse placed inside the plastic garbage bags.

Most plastic does not break down or rot so it has an indefinite life span. Thus all of the plastic products we make will probably still be mixed in the soil of this planet thousands of years from now.

Ships at sea toss garbage bags and plastic products overboard. I believe that garbage scows carrying refuse from major cities also are disposing of their loads in the world's oceans.

Recent studies have shown about 3,500 particles of plastic per square kilometer in the sea off the southern African coast. In fact, surveys of 50 South African beaches from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town show an increase in plastic pollution of 190 percent between 1985 and 1989. Plastic rubbish is found in the oceans all over the world, including the Antarctic regions.

A report said the "plastic rubbish found on beaches near urban areas tends to originate from use on land." This includes packaging material used to wrap other products. In the more remote areas, the pollution seems to be coming from passing ships.

The problem of rubbish from ships became acute enough that Congress in 1987 passed the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act that bars ships from dumping rubbish within 25 nautical miles of land.

But the act only applies to ships in United States territory, and has no effect on vessels traveling in the rest of the world.

While it is floating around in the seas, plastics appear to be breaking down into tiny microscopic pieces of plastic and man-made fibers that can now be found everywhere in the world, a study by scientists at the University of Plymouth in the UK discovered.

"Even remote and apparently pristine layers of sand and mud are now composed partly of this microscopic rubbish, broken down from discarded waste," the report in the journal Science said.

The report said most samples contain a range of plastics or polymers that include nylon, polyester and acrylic. The team also found that creatures that feed on contaminated plankton have plastics inside their bodies. Thus humans who eat sea life are also consuming these plastic particles.

The long-range effects of this pollution are not yet known, the report said.

The larger particles of plastic are found to be a threat to marine life. For example, turtles are particularly affected by plastic pollution. They get entangled in (plastic) fishing nets and many have been found dead with plastic bags in their stomachs. It is believed that they mistake these floating semi-transparent bags for jellyfish, then die from choking or being unable to eat.

One report said an estimated 100,000 marine mammals die each year in the world's oceans by eating or getting entangled in plastic rubbish. Many seals and other mammals get caught up in large plastic objects and drown or die from exhaustion or starvation.

Birds, and especially marine bird species are found to be eating and dying from consuming plastic particles. A study of blue petrel chicks at South Africa's remote Marion Island found that 90 percent of them had plastic in their stomachs. The plastic was apparently fed to them accidentally by their parents.