In his ENV 100 presentation “Plastic in Our Oceans: How Bad Is It,” microbial ecologist Erik Zettler outlined the realities of marine plastic pollution. Zettler first set out to debunk three pervasive myths regarding plastic and the world’s growing marine “garbage patches”:
MYTH 1: Earth’s oceans are filled with enormous, swirling islands of plastic debris. These garbage patches are visible from space.
REALITY: Marine garbage patches mostly look like pristine ocean – until you drag a net through them. Even then, the majority of the plastic fragments captured are less than 1 cm in size.
MYTH 2: Plastic is everywhere in the ocean.
REALITY: Plastic debris moves with ocean currents and converges in gyres – large systems of rotating currents. These gyres become the locations of garbage patches, such as those found in the Pacific, North Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
MYTH 3: Plastic does not biodegrade.
REALITY: Plastics do break down eventually – though once they have entered the environment, they often persist much longer than we would hope for them to.
Zettler’s objective was not to minimize the severity of the marine plastic pollution problem. Nor was it to imply that action is not urgently needed. It was simply to provide a more scientific and less sensationalized perspective on the issue.
Nevertheless, I was moved by his initial question: “How bad is it?” In trying to answer this question, I was reminded that it was not my studies in environmental science that first brought the problem of plastic to my attention – it was my interest in archaeology.
Archaeologists examine the facts of our material reality – the picture that is painted by the physical record we leave behind. These material remains are often what we leave behind intentionally: our refuse, detritus, trash, garbage. The objects we discard speak volumes about the individual lives we lead. And when our garbage is examined on a community or cultural scale, larger patterns of human behavior and belief become visible.
At the urging of my archaeology professor, I attended a presentation last year on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the birds of Midway Atoll. This experience prompted me to ask myself: what picture is my own society painting? What do we see when we look at our own trash? And what would someone from the distant future, the distant past, or another planet entirely think of our modern civilization if they were to examine our refuse?
What sense would they make of this, if they were to uncover such a thing buried under thousands of years worth of strata:
Photographer Chris Jordan’s series “Midway: Message from the Gyre” documents the albatross population of Midway Atoll, whose ‘nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean.’ (http://www.chrisjordan.com)
How bad is it? There might not be giant, solid masses of plastic debris choking our oceans. This plastic might not be immortal, and it might not be everywhere. Nevertheless: I would say, definitively, it is not a pretty picture that we are painting. Our current patterns of behavior – and the belief systems that underlie them – urgently need to be reevaluated.
– Jacqueline Maasch, ’15
Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. This spring she will be studying in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies.