December 7, 2006

"Mermaids' Tears" - Unrecycled plastic chokes the seas

Last August I wrote an article about the China syndrome problem of non-biodegradeable plastic waste escaping our recycling programs and polluting the oceans. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF) of Long Beach, California has been covering this environmental catastrophe for years and has produced a series of videos called Our Synthetic Sea which can be previewed online.

Anyone who has ever ridden the bike path near Playa del Rey, California can attest to the pileup of plastic containers in Ballona Creek - which spills Los Angeles drainage water into the ocean daily. The Los Angeles Times ran a "page one series" on Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas. It told the story of the continuing buildup of plastic in giant ocean "gyres" that perpetuate in our oceans.

Biopact has contributed a story about research being conducted at England's University of Plymouth. Titled Plastics are "poisoning the world's seas", the focus is on what happens when seawater breaks plastic down into tiny, seemingly indestructable fragments that can be carried by water and ingested by even the tiniest of sealife - impacting every level of the food chain.

Plastic rubbish, from drinks bottles and fishing nets to the ubiquitous carrier bag, ends up in the world's oceans. Sturdy and durable plastic does not bio-degrade, it only breaks down physically, and so persists in the environment for possibly hundreds of years.

By shipping these products to developing countries for disposal or combustion (because their regulations are more lax than ours) only exacerbates the air and water pollution problems. It is a flawed and ineffective way to gain credit for diversion from landfills without addressing the key issue - how do we recycle waste matter in a way that does not perpetuate pollution?

We cannot delay implementing technologies that will gasify waste plastic to its molecular components so that we can either convert the syngas into biofuels, use the heat of the process to generate electricity, or convert it to char or green chemicals. Only then can we separate out these elements and control their toxic impact on our environment.

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