It was getting late, but it was the first dry day on the Oregon coast after weeks of hard rain and king tides, and the beach was calling.
A dead sea lion lay at the bottom of the steep ramp from Don Davis Park to Nye Beach. It was already starting to disintegrate, its face gone, guts exposed, tufts of brown fur here and there. Sad.
But I was more upset by the litter. I had been reading a long essay about plastic waste titled “Moby-Duck.” First published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007 and in the Best Creative Nonfiction in 2008, it was later expanded into a book, also titled Moby-Duck.
Author Donovan Hohn’s story begins with a 1992 spill of bath toys from a container ship traveling from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. Little plastic ducks, beavers, turtles, and frogs started turning up on beaches far from the spill. The author became fascinated and met with experts who study the things that drift up onto the beach. He researched the evolution of plastic products, particularly toy ducks, and the effects of plastic breaking down in the sea. He explored the working conditions in Chinese factories where workers were expected to turn out thousands of these things an hour for less than $4 a day.
What starts as an amusing story about toys quickly becomes alarming. Our ocean is so full of plastic we will never get rid of it. It breaks down over time into pieces, then shards, then dust, but it never disappears. Sea animals are eating it, and we’re eating the sea animals. It’s getting inside of everything, including us, and the ingredients are toxic.
Plastic was considered a godsend when it was invented in 1907. Now, that innocent toy bobbing in your child’s bathtub could be a death bomb for your great-grandchildren.
I was reading this essay at the hospital while waiting for my annual exam, getting more and more steamed about long waits and Medicare limitations. I flashed on those plastic gloves that hospital workers wear. Sitting at my father’s bedside when he was dying, I watched the nurses put on a new pair and throw them away every time they changed patients. How many thousands of pairs of gloves did they use in just one day? Where would we put all this waste?
Back to the beach. Instead of shells and rocks, I found trash. Just past the sea lion carcass, where the waves had washed up near the cliffs, blue, white, red, and green plastic litter sparkled in the sun. Embedded in grass and seaweed, most of it was too small to pick up.
The beach wasn’t crowded, but most of the people walking the wave-compacted sand brought their dogs. Those dogs would surely be drawn to the trash. I know mine would. I have caught her eating pens, rubber balls, Frisbees, and paper clips. I find the brightly colored pieces in her feces. I try to keep such things away from her, but people toss them along the roadsides where we walk, and sometimes she swallows the plastic before I can stop her. I worry that one of these thingswill kill her.
In his essay, Hohn tells of albatrosses who eat plastic items and shit them out. Dead birds have been found with cigarette lighters, bottle caps, toys, and other plastic items in their guts. He writes, “Albatross chicks have been known to starve to death on the plastic their parents regurgitate into their mouths, and the intestines of the adult birds can handle only so much before a fatal case of indigestion sets in.”
In the future, will we be able to find water or food that doesn’t sparkle with bits of plastic? Will this invention destroy its creators in the end?
The sky and the ocean were gorgeous, beautiful shades of pale blue. The sand, rocks, and Easter egg-colored buildings along the shore were beautiful. It felt good to get out on the beach and walk, to hear the seagulls laugh and watch a young father run toward the surf with his two-year-old son. But what about all that plastic?
I want to discard every piece of plastic in my house, but I use so much of it, including this computer, every day. Besides, we can’t get rid of it. It will not biodegrade, and most of it is not recyclable.
The plastics industry stresses the usefulness of its products AND their recyclability. Yes, there are those numbers stamped on the bottom which in theory mean they can be recycled. But where I live, the garbage company says no to plastic bags, styrofoam, plastic cutlery, toys, large plastic items, and anything stamped numbers 3 through 7 because they have nowhere to take them. We are instructed to throw them in the regular trash. I’m sure the same is true in many places.
Even with the plastic that can be recycled—mostly bottles—the quantity being discarded far outpaces the ability to remake them into something else. All we can do is try not to buy any more plastic. What we need is a magic wand to make it disappear. It would probably be made of plastic.
“What are Plastics and Rubbers?”
“Plastic Pollution: Facts and Figures”
“Tops Items from Beach Cleanups: Plastics, Plastics, and More Plastics”
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