This post now includes 3 new links: June 12, 2009 Mother Nature News (see comments for Capt. Moore’s insights re this innovation), June 9, 2009 U.N. Official Calls for Worldwide Ban on Plastic Bags, and the April 2009 U.N. report ‘Marine Litter: A Global Problem.’
Last week, NextNow Collab joined with the new Strategic Council on Plastic Pollution at Google in Mountain View to help raise awareness of the rising threat plastic pollution poses to the health of the world’s oceans and all life that depends on them–that is, all life. The day started with a presentation to Google by Captain Charles Moore, the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the man who discovered the Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997 (that was 12 years ago!! Where have we been?), and an environmental hero (who won an Environmental Hero Award from the California EPA). I attempt to summarize the conversation in this post, but the following February 2009 clip from Captain Moore’s TED presentation is a must-see. (Please also see the video from 2001 at the end of this post, filmed during an actual expedition.)
After the presentation at Google, a group of us retreated to a conference room with Captain Moore to arrive at the (almost) final wording of the official statement issued by the Council for the United Nations-designated World Oceans Day (June 8). Manuel Maqueda, one of NextNow Collaboratory’s social media gurus, collaborator on ISDE5, and founder of the Trash Island project, a NNC collaboration project, convened the meeting and opened it with the perfect mixture of gravitas and grace. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of everyone present; these were not only among the people most committed to raising plastic awareness through their own lives, but also can be considered among the theoreticians of the movement. Captain Moore had to leave early but left us with a strong directive: our statement must not be directed at progress, but at the transformation of our relationship to plastic: “This is about the complete redesign of the entire system, not putting more trash cans on the beach. Massaging the old paradigm won’t work. We need a new language, new concepts..”–a new consciousness about plastic, which he rightly says is both a symptom and a symbol of the crisis of over-consumption, of the unsustainable nature of our culture.
This is how Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish describes Captain Moore’s position:
The plastic pollution problem is the visible manifestation of the crisis of our civilization. (There’s so much more that is invisible.) Progress is not what we’re after here. Everything has to be redesigned. We need a new paradigm that subtracts from the consumer lifestyle rather than adding to it. We’re after difference. The Great Refusal.
How did we get here? I remember reading a quote once attributed to, I believe, Harry S. Truman, who told our nation after World War II that it was patriotic to be a “consumer,” to “consume as though it were our religion.” (If anyone knows the actual quote I’m referring to please comment.) Why would he say this? Because we had a huge production capacity that threatened to stand idle after production for the war ended. Captain Moore reminded us that it was our considerable production capacity as a nation that created the manufacturing concept of planned obsolescence–and from there, the cultural concept of “waste saves time,” or “throw-away living.” Context is everything, and whatever wisdom those concepts may have held when they were birthed make them a leading threat to all life on this planet in the context of today. Our hope is that by raising awareness of the seriousness of plastic pollution, we can tap into what people are already becoming instinctively aware of: that we are collectively coming up against the physical limits of our consumption, the mental models this casual consumption represents, and the level of consciousness that accepts them.
Some of what we discussed:
- Only 5% of our plastic in the waste stream is recovered–that’s recovered; even less is recycled.
- Plastic isn’t really recycled, but downcycled (a term popularized by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things), or turned into a lower grade plastic, meaning that a plastic milk bottle never ends up as another plastic milk bottle, at least not without another layer of virgin plastic.
- Plastic never biodegrades, it just breaks down into smaller pieces, mimicking food in the environment. Photodegradation causes disintegration, not final biodegradation. Further, bioplastics, which many of us have placed our hopes on, don’t break down in the marine environment.
- In other environments, volcanic lava melts over plastic debris and incorporates it, making plastic a new substrate.
- More people work in plastic and related industries than in any other single industry.
- It’s not just consumers that supply the glut of plastic debris; plastic pellets which serve as the raw material for consumer products (and which look like fish eggs in the ocean) escape en masse from factories and rail cars each time connections are made and broken. Think of all the other ways plastics get into our environment.
- The density of the plastic in the North Pacific Gyre has doubled in the last ten years. The North Pacific Gyre is only 1 of 5 in the world.
- Toxic chemicals from plastics register in dangerous quantities in the blood streams of humans and animals.
- We must leave the age of extraction, and fully enter the age of reuse.
- If people are given the tools to collaborate in order to transform their use of plastic, they will use them.
For those who say, “what about the discovery of plastic-eating microbes?,” we note that this is an important scientific discovery but, as the article in Mother Nature News says, it’s not a panacea or current workable solution, and while working fervently to make it a reality, we must not be seduced into inaction by possibility.
Future threads will discuss how NextNow Collaboratory can continue to support this movement as a community. In the meanwhile:
PLEASE SHARE THE BELOW STATEMENT ISSUED BY THE STRATEGIC COUNCIL ON PLASTIC POLLUTION AS EXTENSIVELY AS YOU CAN.
Add your name to the bottom of the statement and be counted among those supporting it.
The press release follows this short clip of Wallace J. Nichols, who was present at the meeting, reading the statement. (Those are his daughters opening the clip.)
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
World Oceans Day Brings Warnings from Plastic Pollution Council
June 8, 2009, San Francisco, California
Following a presentation to Google employees by Captain Charles Moore, an oceanographer who pioneered the study of plastic debris, the Strategic Council on Plastic Pollution convened at the Google Campus in Mountain View, California on June 4, 2009. It was the first meeting for the council on plastic pollution, which was recently formed to raise awareness of this rising threat to the world’s oceans. Said council member and marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, “We are finding plastic in the stomachs of sea turtles, birds, and fish all over the world. I find this extremely disturbing.” In honor of World Oceans Day, the council has issued the following statement regarding this increasingly urgent threat to wildlife and human health:
- Do you know where our plastic goes?
- Did you know that our oceans are filling up with plastic pollution?
- Plastic fragments contaminate even the most remote locations on earth, and harmful chemicals leached by plastics are present in the bloodstream and tissues of almost every one of us.
- Plastic pollution harms people, animals, and the environment. Plastic is not biodegradable. In the marine environment, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller particles that absorb toxic chemicals, are ingested by wildlife, and enter the food chain that we depend on.
- Consumption of throwaway plastics, such as bottles, containers, bags, and packaging, has spiraled out of control.
- Recycling is not a sustainable solution. The reality is that most of our plastic waste is landfilled, downcycled or exported to other countries. And tragically, millions of tons of plastic are poisoning our oceans.
- Businesses and governments need to take responsibility for new ways to design, recover and dispose of plastics.
- Plastic pollution is the visible symbol of our global crisis of over-consumption. Let’s pledge to shift our societies away from the disposable habits that poison our oceans and land, eliminate our consumption of throwaway plastics, and begin embracing a culture of sustainability.
- Our health, our children, and the survival of future generations depend on us.