Editorial by Merritt Clifton
Readers who troll my wife Beth’s personal Facebook page have probably seen a collage image she posted last summer showing me jogging along an embankment littered with alligators, stepping over their heads as I go, trailing a leaky helium balloon behind me.
Obviously I didn’t really go hopping past alligators: the collage is a joke.
Balloons are no joke
But the Mylar balloon was not, and was in truth potentially much deadlier than the alligators, since alligators, as cold-blooded reptiles, only kill prey about once a week. Loose balloons can kill and go on killing for years, longer than the average alligator lifespan, right up the marine food chain, as one animal after another ingests either the whole balloon as anticipated prey, or pieces thereof, or ingests a whole incapacitated animal who has plastic fragments in his/her belly.
Recently summarized Los Angeles Times environment writer Sean Greene, “According to a 2014 analysis, five trillion pieces of plastic, weighing a combined 250,000 tons, are floating in the oceans. More than 200 species of marine mammals, turtles, birds and fish have been found to mistakenly eat plastic,” many of whom die from the effects of it.
Picking up plastic
Beth and I pick up plastic items––like the balloon––for safe disposal whenever we find them along “our” beach, a few blocks from the ANIMALS 24-7 headquarters. So do hundreds of thousands of other concerned citizens worldwide. Many also strive to avoid using plastic items that may become debris in the oceans, or along roadsides.
This is no new issue. Indeed, the hazards of plastic debris to wildlife was among the first topics that I ever addressed in my now 48 years as an environmental journalist.
Oversimplification does not help
But what to do to protect animals from plastic debris has never really been effectively addressed. The simple, obvious answer, “Don’t use plastic,” overlooks the reality that many of the alternatives are equally damaging, or worse.
Single-use plastic water bottles are among the most common items of debris, recently lamented Abu Dhabi diver and environmental activist Kathleen Russell to Vesela Todorova of The National.
“Russell, who has been organizing underwater clean-ups since the 1990s, has seen the same problem when camping in the desert,” wrote Todorova, “and while the debris is harmful for both terrestrial and marine creatures, it is more difficult to remove from the ocean.
“The problem is global,” Todorova continued, citing the Joanna Ruxton film Plastic Ocean, filmed in part in “an area at the center of the North Pacific known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where the elements have cut the plastic into tiny pieces the size of plankton,” which “are being eaten by fish and birds.”
“If we do not get our addiction to single-use plastics under control,” warned Ruxton, “that to me is a premonition of what the whole planet is going to look like.”
Perhaps, but “don’t use plastic bottles,” though an attractively easy response, is really not much of a solution. Making glass bottles uses more energy and produces more greenhouse gases than making plastic products, and glass bottles are also far from harmless. As a long-ago volunteer firefighter, I fought many a fire that began with shards of broken glass sparkling in the sun among dry vegetation. Some of those fires raced across fields, igniting forests and barns. Some killed thousands of animals.
Russell and Ruxton expressed their concerns to Todorova only days after Terje Lislevand of Bergen University found 30 plastic bags in the stomach of a rare Cuvier’s beaked whale who was euthanized after becoming hopelessly stranded along the coast of southeastern Norway.
On the far side of the world, in Sydney, Australia, the Taronga Wildlife Hospital celebrated the survival of a juvenile sea turtle they dubbed Clifton, found stranded on December 28, 2016 after ingesting floating plastic bags he apparently mistook for jellyfish. The case added weight to a local campaign to ban plastic bags. South Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory have already banned single-use plastic bags. Queensland has adopted a ban set to start on January 1, 2018.
Cows & plastic
Momentum to ban plastic bags has been building worldwide at least since 1998, when the World Hindu Council demanded that plastic bags be prohibited to protect wandering cattle from ingesting them, a problem chiefly in India, where tens of thousands of cattle still forage in city streets. Many cattle die from the cumulative effects of eating plastic bags. Pinjarapoles [charity cow shelters] routinely surgically remove knots of plastic bag material from distressed cows’ intestines. Cases of cattle ingesting from 50 to 110 pounds of plastic before being helped are not uncommon.
But banning plastic bags, as many U.S. and European cities have also done, is no more a one-size-fits-all solution than is banning plastic bottles. Indeed, reusable cloth shopping bags and paper bags made from recycled material are usually an ecologically preferable choice––but plastic bags, undeniably harmful as they are to many animals, are hardly the whole of the ambient plastic waste issue.
Mistaking plastic for krill
University of California scientist Matthew Savoca in November 2016 reported that “drifting plastic waste accumulates algae that gives off a smell,” that of the sulfur compound dimethyl sulfide, which is “very similar to the [odor of the] krill that many marine birds feed on,” summarized Hannah Devlin, science correspondent for The Guardian.
“The findings could explain,” wrote Devlin, “why certain birds––including albatrosses and shearwaters––which rely on their sense of smell for hunting, are particularly vulnerable to swallowing plastic.”
To test their hypothesis, Savoca et al “put beads made from the three most common types of plastic––high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, and polypropylene––into the ocean at Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay, off the California coast,” continued Devlin.
Odor may mislead 62 bird species
“The beads were sewn into mesh bags and tied to buoys to avoid any of them being eaten by wildlife,” Devlin explained. Three weeks later, the beads were collected and the smell they gave off was analyzed at the U.C. Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, where scientists normally focus on the chemistry behind the flavor and fragrance of wines.”
Savoca et al then compared their findings to data on plastic ingestion by 20,000 seabirds of 62 species. They found that seabird species known to follow the scent of dimethyl sulfide to find food ingest plastic five times more often than species that do not.
“Plastic might not only be visually confusing for these birds,” concluded Savoca, “but chemically confusing. It’s a more insidious threat. The birds are not making dumb decisions. It’s just that plastic can be very deceptive in this regard.”
Any plastic may become the problem
What this means is that almost any plastic item entering the oceans can become deadly to wildlife, especially as it breaks down into smaller and more easily ingestible pieces.
“Coincidentally,” observed Sean Greene of the Los Angeles Times, “the study was published the day after California voters approved Proposition 67 to ban single-use plastic bags.”
Much of the plastic doing the most ecological damage, whether in the form of bags or any other sort of debris, was never meant to be discarded in the first place, but ends up in the environment through various accidents, including losses of about 675 shipping containers per year from shipboard in storms, according to World Shipping Council research.
Shipping companies strive mightily to avoid losing containers, since losing cargo cumulatively costs the shipping industry billions of dollars per year, and the losses are a tiny fraction of the estimated 120 million containers shipped per year, but each lost container is the equivalent of upending into the ocean a day’s worth of deliveries to a big shopping mall.
Yet plastic may be safer than wood or metal
Also of note, much plastic debris consists of plastic used for various purposes as an ecologically gentler replacement for wood or metal.
Indeed, most wooden items biodegrade, eventually, but logging is among the most ecologically damaging of human occupations. Deforestation is an issue in itself in most of the Southern Hemisphere, albeit that tree cover has steadily increased in the Northern Hemisphere since the mid-20th century. Soil erosion associated with deforestation is a problem after logging almost everywhere. Burning logging detritus is a serious source of air pollution, especially in Southeast Asia. And logging, though not necessarily bringing net reductions in biodiversity, inevitably brings transitions in habitat affecting the survival prospects of endangered and threatened species.
Mining & smelting
Metals can be more easily recycled than most plastics, but mining and smelting metal harms habitat, and animals, at every stage of production and use, from the disruptions associated with excavating the ore, to the atmospheric effects of generating the energy needed to work metals.
The bottom line is, there really are no simple, easy, universally applicable solutions to the plastic debris problem.
About all we can do effectively, for now at least, is what we are already doing: using other materials when other materials are genuinely more ecologically appropriate, recycling plastics to whatever extent they can be recycled, trying to dispose of plastic items safely, and picking up plastic debris when we see it at large.
With that much acknowledged and said, however, there are many completely pointless, frivolous, idiotic uses of plastic that could and should be dispensed with, totally, forever.
Deliberately releasing plastic balloons is among them. Even if the balloons are made from completely biodegradable material, such as latex rubber, they can harm a great many animals before they biodegrade.
Firing and discarding plastic shotgun shells is another dispensable exercise for morons, whether the pretext is shooting birds or just target practice.
Though some inveterate hunters have their ashes packed into plastic shotgun shells to be blasted into eternity, on balance this use does not even remotely come close to offsetting the harm done, especially to marine life, by plastic shell casings––and this is not even discussing, yet, the effects of lead shot, the use of which former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe moved to phase out over five years on the very last day of his term of office.
Appointed Interior Secretary by new U.S. President Donald Trump, Ryan Zinke on March 2, 2017 reversed the Ashe order as his very first official act.
Fishing with plastic floats, monofilament lines, nylon nets, and other equipment made from non-biodegradable materials is yet another multi-billion-dollar industry that Planet Earth, especially the oceans, could well do without. Realistically, though, fishing industry use of plastics is probably even less likely to end soon, if ever, than hunting with plastic shotgun shells.
These sources of plastic pollution will end only when and if we have a vegan world, at best a distant goal for animal advocates, not yet shared by many environmentalists, let alone the non-activist public.
Yet, in the interim, it would be refreshing to see some of the major multinational conservation groups start taking note that the consumption of meat sold in plastic trays and burger boxes harms far more animals and habitat per year than all the plastic bags combined that are used to carry the critter parts home.