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Throwaway Plastics Impacting Our Oceans : The Effects Of Single Use Plastics

Updated on August 28, 2012

The Throwaway Culture

I grew up in an upper-class American family. My father had a well paying job and my mother got to stay at home to care for my siblings and I. We had a nice house, nice cars, a family vacation home at the beach, and lots and lots of toys. I grew up happy and, other than the occasional spanking (for lying about eating the cookies in the jar) I didn't have a care in the world.

From the time I entered my private and Catholic grade school, I was told that if I work hard I'll get a good job. If I get a good job, then I will make a lot of money. And if I make a lot of money ... well then I can do whatever I want! Big cars, fancy vacations, lots of toys ... the sky was the limit. After all -- that is the "American Dream" isn't it?

We believe that our lives should be made easier the harder that we work. And in doing so, our culture has developed numerous products to make our lives easier. In the beginning, these products were heralded as the pinnacle of a developed culture. At the forefront of these civilized products were those made of plastic.

The "Throwaway Culture" was born. In the past 60 years, we have created millions of single use products out of plastic. Wrappings, shopping bags, containers, bottles, straws, cups, plates, forks ... the list goes on and on. But there's only one problem with these plastic products -- they never go away. Plastic only breaks down into smaller bits of plastic. They never decompose.

Single Use Plastics (Watch!)

How Single Use Plastics Impact Our Planet

Every time you go get a drink from the local fast food joint, what happens to that straw? The cup? The cap? When was the last time you had a gatorade or bottled water? Or perhaps you recently had a sandwich from Subway and they put your meal in one of those thin little plastic bags.

You may read be thinking, "Well yah, but I always recycle those..."

Well you may want to watch this TED talk by Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He was the man who first discovered what has commonly been called the North Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the Pacific Ocean where certain currents converge and create a collecting ground for pollutants entering our ocean. While most people envision a wasteland of plastic bottles and other items the size of Texas drifting in the middle of no-where, the reality is actually much more nefarious. The ocean is turning into a "plastic soup" where the plastics aren't just large chunks floating about, but microscopic particles that are being ingested by every living creature in the ocean.

In just the past 60 years, the plastics our culture have created have altered the chemistry and environment of the oceans. In places like the North Pacific Gyre, there is more plastic in the water than plankton - the small crustacean that forms a crucial part of the food chain and many marine animals depend on. Instead, animals higher up on the food chain are ingesting the plastic particles that are the result of our throwaway society.

There's nothing wrong with smoking ... right?
There's nothing wrong with smoking ... right?

The Wisdom Of The ... Young?

Generally speaking, we look to our elders for sage advice on how to run our lives. Our parents try to pass on their knowledge to ensure that we live the highest quality life as possible. Normally, this entails the previous generation teaching the younger generation to follow in their footsteps. After all ... it worked for them!

However, there is a fatal error in this perspective. Sometimes consequences don't show up for years.

Lets take smoking for example. Back in the 50's everyone seems to have been smoking. In fact, smoking was considered healthy and safe. During WWII, the army actually included cigarettes in their standard field ration for the troops. I can distinctly remember that all of my grandparents smoked...

I also remember that my grandparents passed away from cancer. Both of my grandfathers from lung cancer. And my grandmother passed away before she even retired from pancreatic cancer. All were considered smoking related cancers. My grandparents grew up in a culture that thought smoking was not an issue. They didn't understand the consequence their habit would have in years to come. It wasn't until the 1980's that our the medical field first started to take a real look at the effects of smoking.

This older generation continued smoking until the day they died. Even though by the time they passed away it was common knowledge that smoking is bad for your health. It was the younger generation that had to make the decision NOT to smoke in the first place before we started to see a drop in the amount of new smokers. And this came about because of the awareness the new generation gained on the risks and consequences of smoking.

I'm sure you understand the analogy I'm trying to point out. Our parents, now the older generation, will most likely not be wiling to give up their throwaway lifestyle. They might even deny that there is anything wrong with the use of single use plastic products. The reason for this is simple ... they've used them their whole lives and there hasn't been anything wrong. Back when my Dad was my age, no one knew about the North Pacific Gyre or the affect pollution has on our oceans and, ultimately ... us.

The decomposed body of a sea bird showing the contents of its stomach.  Notice that the entire bird is decomposing, yet the plastic looks completely unaltered.
The decomposed body of a sea bird showing the contents of its stomach. Notice that the entire bird is decomposing, yet the plastic looks completely unaltered. | Source

An Escalating Problem

In recent years, the plastic problem has become more of a priority in our culture. The last few decades have seen many recycling campaigns, public services for recycling, reusable shopping bags, laws governing littering and pollution as well as many anti-polution organizations determined to cut back on our waste issues.

So why is the problem getting worse?

Again, let me point out a difference between our parents and us. As I write this, I am 29 years old. When my father was 29 years old, the year was 1983. Back in 1983, the human population on Earth was estimated at 4.3 billion people. Now, in 2012, the global population has exceeded 7 billion people. Thats almost twice as many people living on the planet as when everything was fine for our parents.

On top of that, the throwaway culture is expanding. Where before it was mainly a western (and typically American) lifestyle, the proliferation of plastic products has found its way into the culture of up-and-coming economies like China and India. So even though we are trying to "cut back" on our consumption and waste of plastic products, the fact is that there are more plastic products being produced now than ever before. And as production increases, so does that amount of plastics that find their way into our oceans.

So What Can We Do?

The full consequences of our cultures use of single use plastics may not be known for years. In those years it is highly probable that plastic production will continue to increase and more contaminates will enter our oceans, our food chain, and our lives. I don't pretend to know the answers. I just hope to help others become more aware.

We can debate the politics of environmentalism and say it is all liberal propaganda if we'd like. We can swear that we'll never drink another soda with a non-recyclable cap. We can protest, squabble, argue and fight. But in the end we only have to look at one fact.

Plastics don't decompose ... and we are still making more.

Learn More About Simple and Sustainable Living

Learn more and follow along as I record my experiment in simple living!

In Search Of The Sea is an ongoing project that aims to bring focus to simple living lifestyles as well as practical ways to live a more sustainable existence. Follow along on my blog as I discover, research, and explore a better way to live!


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