Poi­son­ing the planet with plas­tic

The Compass - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Eastern Pas­sages

As you sow, so shall you eat. OK, that’s not re­ally the say­ing, but you’ll see what I mean in a mo­ment.

It al­ways amazes me that, no mat­ter how far away from the beaten track you get, you can al­ways find plas­tic trash.

Deep in Nova Sco­tia’s Route No. 8, on the long empty run from west coast to east, I stopped near Har­mony Mills for just a mo­ment, only to find Cap­tain Mor­gan start­ing at me from a float­ing plas­tic flask bot­tle in the ditch. A hand­ful of miles later, passed reg­u­larly by speed­ing log­ging trucks, a stop next to a slowly re­grow­ing clear-cut in­cluded an empty plas­tic vodka bot­tle and two plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles.

Atop a knuckle of high­ground rock be­tween New­found­land’s Adam’s Cove and Bradley’s Cove, there was the skele­ton of a dead sheep with grass grow­ing up through its ribs, a stone fire pit with long­soaked half-burned logs and a col­lec­tion of plas­tic bot­tles, nes­tled to­gether as if seek­ing warmth.

P.E.I.’s sand beaches are gor­geous, but you can play a game of col­lect­ing plas­tic twist-off bot­tle caps and never get skunked — in fact, never be short of a full hand­ful, no mat­ter how far away you walk from the main beaches.

Sci­en­tists have found plas­tics, and their bro­ken-down mi­croplas­tic bits, in places so far flung that hu­mans have never ac­tu­ally been there. A study re­leased in mid-Novem­ber found that, at the bot­tom of the deep­est ocean trenches in the world — the Mar­i­ana, Ja­pan, Izu-Bonin, Peru-Chile, New He­brides and Ker­madec trenches in the Pa­cific — as much as 100 per cent of deepsea crus­taceans were found to have plas­tic fi­bres in their di­ges­tive sys­tems.

In fact, when it comes to the ocean, there are now sug­ges­tions that there is plas­tic sim­ply ev­ery­where: there are the well-known and well-re­ported gi­ant spin­ning gyres of float­ing trash in the Pa­cific, off Chile, and, most re­cently, in the Caribbean. The images of near-end­less plas­tic waste float­ing in vast mats is star­tling enough.

But re­search done off Nor­way is even more star­tling, not be­cause you can see the plas­tic, but be­cause you can’t.

Sci­en­tists with the Nor­we­gian In­sti­tute of Wa­ter Re­search sam­pled blue mus­sels — the ones that are so pop­u­lar for hu­man con­sump­tion — for mi­croplas­tics con­tam­i­na­tion at 13 sites along the Nor­we­gian coast, in­clud­ing a site at Fin­n­mark, the fur­thest north­ern edge of the coun­try. At every sin­gle site, mus­sels — which are fil­ter-feed­ers — were found to be car­ry­ing tiny plas­tic bits in their in­ter­nal or­gans. Out of the en­tire sam­ple, 76.6 per cent of the mus­sels were con­tam­i­nated with plas­tics.

And not just ba­sic plas­tics: “In ad­di­tion to semi-syn­thetic cel­lu­losic poly­mers, other poly­mers iso­lated from blue mus­sels in­cluded polyesters, polypropy­lene and poly­eth­yl­ene, Ethy­lene-vinyl ac­etate foam and epoxy resin. Po­ten­tial sources of these par­ti­cles could range from tex­tiles, gen­eral use plas­tics, paints, and fi­nally, oil and tar,” the re­port says.

And the prob­lem’s only go­ing to grow: “Mi­croplas­tic pol­lu­tion is pro­jected to in­crease in the fore­see­able fu­ture with the con­tin­ued en­vi­ron­men­tal break­down and frag­men­ta­tion of present stocks and fu­ture pro­duc­tion of plas­tic items.”

Al­ready, 97 per cent of beached lit­ter in the Arc­tic is plas­tic. For those ma­rine or­gan­isms, eat­ing plas­tic has clear prob­lems: the mus­sel study points out that, “Lab­o­ra­tory stud­ies have iden­ti­fied some po­ten­tial ef­fects of mi­croplas­tic ex­po­sure in­clud­ing: in­creased im­mune re­sponse, de­creased food con­sump­tion, weight loss, en­ergy de­ple­tion, de­creased growth rate, de­creased fe­cun­dity and im­pacts on sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions.”

So far, there aren’t com­pa­ra­ble con­cerns about hu­mans eat­ing plas­tic-con­tam­i­nated sea life. But you know, we’re an­i­mals, too — and you are what you eat.

If any­thing, we de­serve to suf­fer the ef­fects of our mess.

Na­ture’s only giv­ing back what we reg­u­larly give it.


Plas­tic cof­fee cup lid em­bed­ded in P.E.I. beach.

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