Would you like some fries with your plastic?

It’s grimly amusing how some predictions, outlandish and rather unbelievable when they were made, nevertheless often come true.

I remember high school in the 1960s, when our social studies curriculum predicted a variety of unpleasant outcomes from the growth in our consumer way of life, particularly as part of that expansion simply reflected geometric population increase. At the time, Canada was singing its pride over Montreal’s Expo ’67. Everything was coming up roses.

The movie of the year featured Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin in “The Graduate,” a satire about growing up absurd in southern California in a time of social upheaval. At Ben’s graduation party, a family friend took the young man aside to give him some friendly advice about his economic future. “I have only one word to say to you, Benjamin,” he said. “Plastic!”

He was right in a sense. Plastic certainly turned into a growth industry. A cursory glance around my office turns up: plastic mouse and keyboard, plastic mouse pad, plastic lamp, plastic phone, plastic printer, plastic container for crazy glue, plastic glasses cleaner bottle, plastic binder covers, plastic bags (and on, and on…)

Plastics would be at all problematic if they would break down naturally into the chemicals we wizard humans synthesized them from: carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Unfortunately, plastics’ chemical inertness (that makes them so useful as things such as food containers and beverage bottles, keeping the contents more or less sterile) also means that they DON’T break down. They may break into smaller and smaller physical particles, like the plastic beads that made toothpastes more abrasive and shaves smoother, but their chemical constituents remain the same.

Some plastics are weakened by ultraviolet light, the wavelength of sunlight that gives us sunburn. Thus, plastic garbage in the ocean (lost buoys, waste packaging, and so on) that is thus weakened gets bashed into smaller and smaller pieces by the action of the roiling seawater until it becomes actually microscopic.

In unpolluted seawater, when zooplankton consume phytoplankton, the phytoplankton release an aromatic chemical called DMS. Seabirds use this smell to home in on the fish they eat (where there are plankton feeding, there are usually fish). An unfortunate chemical accident is the fact that plastics being sloshed around in seawater release DMS, as well. Thus, plastic pollution smells like fish to seabirds, and the millions of seabirds gobble up plastic in quantities sufficient to kill them by the tens of thousands. Seabird populations have dropped by about 2/3 since 1960.

Fish also swallow plastic detritus because it looks and behaves much like the plankton and miniscule sea beings that they normally eat. Although research details are not definitive as yet, microplastic that we consume in the seafood we eat may be attracting other chemical toxins such as heavy metals. A recent article in England’s Independent quotes estimates of top European shellfish consumers taking in up to 11,000 microplastic pieces a year.

Greenpeace estimates that we’re adding about eight million tons of plastic a year to the oceans, another unintentional, out-of-control experiment on the planet. Getting this pollution under control is going to take a lot of work.

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