Plastic Is Forever

To observe my first End of the World Friday #eotwf — where we admit our fears about the planet and try to imagine sustainable futures — I’m going to tell you about my deep fear of plastic.

Your Dasani bottle makes me shudder— it’s true! — as does my computer keyboard, my grandmother’s costume jewelry, the garbage can at the movie theater, and the neighbor kid’s Little Tikes playset.

I’m terrified that the oceans, already struggling with temperature and acidity changes due to human-provoked climate shifts, will become unlivable even for the creatures who might adjust to water that’s a little warmer and a little more pH-y.

The reason? Plastic.

Did you know that every time you wash your clothes, little strings and fuzz balls of material come off? Of course you know that. That’s why you have to empty out your lint screen in your clothes dryer after every load (“You are emptying it after every load, aren’t you?” Your mother made me ask that.).

But what about before your clothes get to the dryer? Your shirts and pants and unmentionables are still casting off thousands of little strings and fuzz balls in the washer. They just go, largely unnoticed by us laundry-doers, down the drain. From there, they get mixed in with our waste water and out into our large bodies of water — our Great Lakes, our rivers, our oceans, etc.

This might not be a huge deal if all of our clothes were good old denim jeans, linen skirts, and pure cotton t-shirts. (“You’re not putting your nice linen skirt in the wash, are you? I spent $80 on that.” Sorry. Your mom again.) The fuzzies from those natural fiber garments would fairly quickly biodegrade. But of course many of our modern clothes are actually plastic: acrylic, polyester, nylon, polar fleece. When these plastics shed, the fuzzies are forever.

Dr. Mark Brown of University of California-Santa Barbara studies these “microplastics.” He’s found that a single plastic garment washed once can release nearly 1,900 tiny fibers into the water stream. And once there, the fibers get everywhere — into marine life and into us. The intrepid researchers at the 5 Gyres Institute have made the painful discovery that, in some parts of the ocean, the ratio of plastic to plankton is 40:1. Death soup.

It’s not just the little plastics I’m worried about. The bite-sized chunks that make it into our oceans are killing creatures, too.

Midway,” Chris Jordan’s forthcoming movie about the albatrosses of Midway Atoll, shows the extent of the plastic crisis as we watch parent albatrosses fly several miles out into the ocean to pick up bits of food to regurgitate for their babies. Even in the far-off waters surrounding Midway — so-called because it’s about halfway between North America and Asia — much of the “food” they pick up and feed to their offspring is plastic bottle caps, plastic cigarette lighters, plastic netting, all the gratuitous bits of our plastic daily lives. The babies die horrible deaths, either from physical damage to their digestive systems or by starving because their stomachs are so full of undigestible material.

And now — before I make Friday better — I’m going to make Friday worse: Recycling isn’t a real answer.

Where do all those single-use water bottles, single-use grocery bags, and single-use yogurt cups go once we diligently and self-satisfiedly send them off on the recycling truck? Mostly to poorer nations, so that workers desperate enough to expose themselves to toxic chemicals released in the plastics recycling process can process our waste for us. And much of it isn’t being recycled there, either. After the profitable materials are sorted out, the remainder is often just heaped in low-income neighborhoods. China, after importing nearly 70% of the US’ plastic waste for several years, has recently addressed pollution concerns by blocking these imports through its “Green Fence” law, and US recyclers are scrambling to figure out what to do with our refused refuse.

And plastic is never “recycled” anyway, but “downcycled” into another, less durable material. So, clear plastic water bottles never become clear plastic water bottles again; they become polar fleece shirts. And we know all about polar fleece shirts …

The only real answer is to almost entirely stop using plastic. Don’t make it. Don’t use it. Don’t downcycle it. Don’t bury it. Don’t burn it. Just stop. Maybe there are a handful of uses for plastic that make the cradle-to-grave risks worth it, but I can’t think of many.

Does that sound impossible? It’s not (mostly)! One easy (and fun, I swear) way to begin that journey is to follow the adventures of Beth Terry and her growing legion of fans. Beth is the author of Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. Her website,, is inspiring and a little bit goofy and truly, in these polluted times, a breath of fresh air.

Plastic has become so commonplace that it may seem strange to question its presence in our every day life. But we must. I’ll admit that challenging plastic is scary. It forces me to ask: How much of my life will I have to change to live sustainably? And will I still be happy? Comfortable? Safe? That’s why in the trailer for “Midway” the movie’s creators ask:

“Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?”

Of course we do! So, let’s get to work! #eotwf

July 18, 2014 Blog Posts