Ten years ago, while I had the honor of teaching middle school humanities and science, our focus often turned to the oceans and continents of the world. At the time, some interesting research was coming to light about "The Great Garbage Patch" in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii (not all that far from Oregon where I taught) so I brought that information to my students. We began calling it a new continent and that raised awareness about the overuse of plastic.
The garbage patch is a vortex of plastic waste and debris. Because it's swirling around in a system of currents (called a Gyre), all the plastic gets broken down into small particles as it is shepherded into the calm, stable area at the center of the currents. And then it's trapped. And it's not biodegradable. That means every piece of plastic ever created from the beginning of the era of plastic (1862, Alexander Parkes introduced "Parkesine", the world's first ever man made plastic) is still with us on earth. Back in 1789, Antoine Lavoisier and Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier discovered something called The Law of Conservation of Mass which states: mass is neither created nor destroyed in chemical reactions. In other words, the mass of any one element at the beginning of a reaction will equal the mass of that element at the end of the reaction.
Their discovery is an interesting one and I often think of it when I put anything out into the world (art, poetry, words) because I think of art as a chemical reaction. But when I think of all the things I buy that have plastic (mostly packaging at this point, though I'm still uncovering some things I buy with hidden plastic components), my heart is heavy because I know I am contributing to the Great Garbage Patch.
New information about the vortex of plastic in the last few years. Some myths were perpetuated in the broader public back when I was in that classroom. For instance, the Great Garbage Patch cannot be seen from satellite imagery and there is no actual place to stand on firm 'ground' (so me calling it a new continent was not really accurate). It's a floating mix of oil, plastic and, it turns out, 46% old fishing nets and other equipment. However under the water on the seafloor there is likely a trash heap forming. All of this disrupts multiple systems from algae, plankton (who don't get the necessary sunlight in order to create their own nutrients because that sunlight is blocked by the layer of plastic debris above) to seals, sea turtles and the Albatross (who mistakes plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks).
Unfortunately this plastic heap in the ocean is far enough from any one country so no one is taking responsibility for cleaning it up. In fact the man who first discovered the vortex, Charles Moore (in 1997) says trying to clean it up would bankrupt any country. There are groups and people doing their best to help clean up the problem though.
I've decided what I can do is investigate what I use daily and try to eliminate my use of single use plastic. Today that meant going to the grocery store and turning down dish detergent because I'm going to get bulk detergent from the Co Op and buying a bunch of spinach instead of the conveniently packaged spinach. I also turned down some of my favorite cucumbers --the Persian variety-- because the were wrapped in plastic. Even though I thought I was paying attention today, still some plastic snuck into my basket.
I don't feel as if I have the budget for the changes I need to make and also, I can't afford not to make the changes because I care about the earth. So I will try to conserve my plastic use. Rather than focus on re-use, I'm going to try not to buy it in the first place.