By Marisa Robson
They say, if you put a frog in boiling water it’ll jump out. Put a frog in cool water and set him on the stove with a low fire under him and he’ll boil to death slowly. Maybe frogs are really like that, maybe not. Human beings on the other hand - human beings are definitely like that.
April 20, 2010 gave us a boiling pot with the explosion on the BP operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig causing a massive oil spill that vomited out from the bowls of the earth covering ten thousand square kilometers in its toxic slick. The event burst into the headlines generating worldwide outrage, a hurricane of hate mail and tens of thousands of law suits. Hating BP CEO Tony Hayward became a global hobby amidst a mardi gras of finger pointing, explanation demanding and general bitching about the greedy oil merchants and the evil empire.
All this is merely evidence that we humans love ourselves a good scapegoat.
There is no denying that the gulf oil slick was and is a horrific ecological disaster and that BP’s blind self interest and incompetence is criminal. However, it is a not the worst ecological disaster we are facing presently. Yes I hear your amygdala popping in preparation for a rage-fest in its hot hormone soup from all the way over here, but bear with me for a second.
Natural Sea floor oil seeps are common; so common in fact that they are used to locate wells underwater. A satellite survey published in January 2000 and a National Academies study from 2003, show that approximately 980,000 barrels of oil seeps from some 600 locations on the ocean floor of the Gulf of Mexico alone every year. These slow leaks are broken down by bacteria and physical and chemical mechanisms inherent in the ocean which action complete disappearance of oil by breaking it down into harmless organic components.
Because the gulf gusher generated an oil to water ratio which outweighed the ability of these natural processes to break the slick down by several orders of magnitude (some 4.9 million barrels) toxic goop ravaged the area killing dolphins, blackening beaches and polluting marshlands. The tragedy is, nevertheless, isolated to a relatively contained area which, in a couple of hundred years, barring other stresses to the ecology would have been restored and repopulated.
Not so with the untold tons of plastic floating around in our oceans. The North and South Pacific gyres presently house an insidiously growing area twice the size of the United States filled with plastic beverage bottles, condoms, bits of disposable diaper, severed barbie doll limbs, medical gloves, and shopping bags all through the water column down to the ocean floor, killing an average of one hundred thousand marine mammals annually.
Samples taken from the area by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation reveal that this part of the ocean contains six parts of plastic for every one part of zooplankton; it is, essentially an enormous plastic slick created by huge numbers of us not behaving all that badly.
While many of us who sport a shade of green tend to think that consuming plastic responsibly (a.k.a. reduce, re-use, recycle) will protect our environment from the onslaught of human trash, this is unfortunately not the case. Firstly, plastics are difficult to recycle since their molecular structures change when heated. After being “downcycled” a few times, most plastic products will inevitably end up in landfills or in the ocean where they never, ever biodegrade. Recycling plastic (while certainly not as bad as using new) is not a solution to the amount of plastic we pump out. It is merely a delay.
This really is a problem of numbers. For example, using a disposable cup on your flight to London (assuming that it will be properly disposed of by the airline) is an innocuous act. However when you learn that one million plastic disposable cups are thrown away by the worlds airlines every six hours as depicted in Chris Jordan’s series of photographs ‘Running the Numbers’ (worth a Google if you don't know it) the picture starts to change. Buying a litre or two of milk packaged in plastic once in a while is really not all that bad. But when six billion of us do it, inconceivable amounts of trash are generated and the problem becomes unimaginable. Multiply that by ointment tubes, dishwashing liquid bottles, food packaging and the thousands of other applications for plastic, and the cause of the Pacific gyre nightmare becomes clear.
The Pacific gyre is our slowly boiling pot; our unwavering cumulative death sentence passed not only on the creatures whose natural habitat the ocean is, but, if we don’t turn this around, on ourselves. This is not about hugging trees and being eco-chic; it’s about our continued capacity for survival.
For years we have been living by the slogan reduce, re-use, recycle. Perhaps where it comes to plastics, a more suitable motto would be don’t use, don’t use, don’t use.