Date:  14 July 09

In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire offers one word of advice to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock—Plastics. In the 19th century, Horace Greely may have said “Go west young man,” but in the 20th, Mr. McGuire says, “Get into plastics.” And from many perspectives, Mr. McGuire was right—ours has become an age of plastics, and that’s what we discuss in this edition of Ecotopia. We with the Jo Royle, skipper of an ocean-going sailboat named Plastiki. Later this year the Plastiki Expedition sail from San Francisco to Sydney in order to raise awareness of the ecological dangers of plastic. Skipper Jo Royle’s boat is being constructed entirely out of recycled plastic materials, including twelve thousand recycled two-liter soft drink bottles.

Background: Our Love-Hate Affair with Plastic

So what exactly is this stuff called “plastic”?.  Our Google search turned up that:

  • Most broadly, the word “plastic” means “fictile”: “capable of being molded or modeled (especially of earth or clay or other soft material)”;
  • More specifically, “plastic” it is a generic name “for certain synthetic or semisynthetic materials that can be molded or extruded into objects or films or filaments or used for making coatings and adhesives.”

And even more specifically, the “Wise Geek” tells us that Plastic is:

a polymer composed of a long chain or line of smaller molecules that are known as monomers. Monomers themselves are made of atoms that are usually extracted from natural or organic substances, and are generally classified as petrochemicals. All sorts of monomers can be utilized in the creation of plastic. Crude oil and natural gas are often the source of some of these elements, which include monomers such as styrene, vinyl chloride, and vinyl acetate. […] Liquid monomers are poured into a mold and allowed to cool.

People Love Plastic. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle,  Zahid Ardar observes:

Designers everywhere are experimenting with the wondrous properties of low-cost, lightweight plastic. Its luminescent translucency and malleability – – long camouflaged in cheap or unattractive products such as wood-grain Formica or slate-like exterior siding that only makes use of plastic’s impermeability — are now highlighted in new ways. Plastic has moved from a supporting role to being the star.

In homes, utilitarian plastic components — window shades, washable wallpaper, polyurethane mattress foam and paint, vinyl upholstery and PVC pipes — have been popular yet essentially invisible in the background. Now, plastic furniture and accessories appear center stage in the most elegant living spaces.

Furniture, carpets and translucent screens of plastic are as easy to find as Bakelite knobs were in the early 20th century. Now, when an acrylic or polylactic acid (PLA) computer case swivels into a plasma screen or one-piece footwear of lightweight injection-molded material providing a seamless shell and a rubbery sole, you can experience the new enhanced plastics up close.

[…] Industrial designer Yves Béhar, whose San Francisco firm, Fuseproject, specializes in just such design gymnastics, [says that]  Plastic is appropriate for most of his work because of its material flexibility. He even admires plastic’s infamous longevity: Long-lasting products don’t have to be replaced or remade as often — an environmental plus. […] Once considered just a cheap substitute for other materials, plastic has now become an attractive option for high-end consumer goods. It can be flexible, inert and exceedingly strong — so strong that carbon fiber-reinforced plastic sheathing can hold up bridges. Yet melted plastic can be injected into delicate molds to make precise components as small as Lego toys and ball bearings.

People Hate Plastic: But we have also come to see the downside of plastics, which has prompted an entire web site devoted to “I think I hate plastic.” Its blog entries provide hundreds of reasons to hate plastics, including:

Plastic is forever—it lasts a long, long time.

Water bottles: An energy inefficient, toxic commodity that we use once and throw “out”, where it languishes for 1,000 years

Plastic packaging: Clam shell packaging often contains a form of PVC, which has high levels of lead and phthalates. This makes the packaging more durable, less bendy, and impossible to open. Exposure to these chemicals according to researchers can be linked to premature birth delivery, early puberty in girls, impaired sperm quality and sperm damage in men, genital defects and reduced testosterone production in boys

Plastic Bags: Americans discard over 380 billion plastic grocery bags each year, choking landfills and endangering animals.

The Problem with Plastic In the Ocean: Especially relevant to our discussion tonight is this report from Science: How Stuff Works:

The main problem with plastic — besides there being so much of it — is that it doesn’t biodegrade. No natural process can break it down. (Experts point out ­that the durability that makes plastic so useful to humans also makes it quite harmful to nature.) Instead, plastic photodegrades. A plastic cigarette lighter cast out to sea will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic without breaking into simpler compounds, which scientists estimate could take hundreds of years. The small bits of plastic produced by photodegradation are called mermaid tears or nurdles.

These tiny plastic particles can get sucked up by filter feeders and damage their bodies. Other marine animals eat the plastic, which can poison them or lead to deadly blockages. Nurdles also have the insidious property of soaking up toxic chemicals. Over time, even chemicals or poisons that are widely diffused in water can become highly concentrated as they’re mopped up by nurdles. These poison-filled masses threaten the entire food chain, especially when eaten by filter feeders that are then consumed by large creatures.

[Moreover, the nurdles accumulate] :

In t­he broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean, there exists the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a slowly moving, clockwise spiral of currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents. The area is an oceanic desert, filled with tiny phytoplankton but few big fish or mammals. Due to its lack of large fish and gentle breezes, fishermen and­ s­ailors rarely travel through the gyre. But the area is filled with something besides plankton: trash, millions of pounds of it, most of it plastic. It’s the largest landfill in the world, and it floats in the middle of the ocean.

The gyre has actually given birth to two large masses of ever-accumulating trash, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, sometimes collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California; scientists estimate its size as two times bigger than Texas. The Western Garbage Patch forms east of Japan and west of Hawaii. Each swirling mass of refuse is massive and collects trash from all over the world. The patches are connected by a thin 6,000-mile long current called the Subtropical Convergence Zone. Research flights showed that significant amounts of trash also accumulate in the Convergence Zone.


Our Questions for Jo Royle

  • Please tell us about the Plastiki project. When and where did it originate?  What are its goals?
  • What are the dates for the planned trip? What sort of media coverage is planned for the sail date?
  • Who designed the boat? How is it constructed? How long did it take to build it?
  • Where did the 2-liter plastic bottles come from?  Will they degrade at sea? What other recycled materials are used? Is the whole boat made of recycled materials?
  • How big is the boat and how large is the crew?  What will their roles be?
  • Tell us about the energy generation, fresh water creation and waste treatment systems that make the boat self-contained.
  • What is your course?  How will you navigate?  Will you have radio contact with the shore? Will you make stops along the way?
  • Will the trip be filmed? Will there be other boats accompanying the Plastiki boat?
  • What will you do with the boat once you reach Sydney?

Beyond Tiki:

  • What’s the Eastern Garbage Patch and how has it been formed?
  • How much plastic waste is there at sea?  (in landfills?  littering the highways?)
  • What ideas are being put forth to deal with the Eastern Garbage Patch? Can the waste there be reused?
  • One purpose of the voyage is to activate people to be “smart with waste” and to think of it as a “valuable resource.” What are some ideas for making use of our waste?
  • Please tell us more about the individuals who have created this project and their expertise.
  • What follow-up events does the Plastiki group have after the voyage? How will you keep the project going?

Do-It-Yourself: Plastic and Ecology

As a follow up to our interview with Jo Royle, you may enjoy visiting the Plastiki web site, , which contains an artist rendering of the boat and details about the project.  Once the Plastiki sets sail, we will be tracking its voyage on Ecotopia.

There is a lot of obvious stuff that we can do about plastic, including recycling.  But the number one cure for the plastic problem is to avoid using it, and especially not using throwaway plastics.

How Stuff Works site which we quoted earlier has an excellent list of resources related not only to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but to plastic problems, recyling possibilities, and even proposed and pending legislation that will attempt to cut down on the more dangerous plastics and in various ways encourage or legislate eliminating or recycling plastics.

We also have found some interesting recycling ideas on on ways of putting plastic to use in ways that will keep it out of the landfills.

We’ve posted those links on our website.

An especially useful article by Liz Borkowski can be found on the Green America website. In “Greener Paths for Plastics,” she writes:

Here are ways to make your plastic use healthier and more environmentally friendly.

Reduce and Reuse: There are a few cases—such as that of medical  supplies—in which it’s necessary to use plastic once and then discard  it, but it’s often possible to find a better alternative. Avoid single-use items such as disposable bottles, plates, and cutlery. Carry a  refillable bottle or mug for beverages on the go, and bring reusable  cloth bags to stores. For leftovers and takeout food, reusable  containers are better than foam boxes or plastic wrap and bags. If you regularly buy products that are only available in plastic packaging,  buy the largest container available, rather than the multiple smaller  ones, to cut down on the total amount of plastic used.

Take precautions: […]The  Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has issued a “Smart  Plastics Guide” that includes the following recommendations […]:

·        Avoid using plastic containers in the microwave. Instead, use  glass or ceramic containers free of metallic paint.

·        Beware of cling wraps, especially for microwave use.

·        If you do [re]use plastic water bottles, take precautions. […] Do not  use for warm or hot liquids, and discard old or scratched water  bottles. […] you can reduce bacterial  contamination by thoroughly washing daily. However, avoid using harsh  detergents that can break down the plastic and increase chemical leaching.

Take Care With Kids: The rapid development and immature immune systems  of fetuses and children make them particularly susceptible to damage  from toxins, so pregnant women and parents should exercise extra  caution with plastics. The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition  […] advises choosing cloth and wooden toys and avoiding plastic  toys, which are often made of PVC and can leach harmful chemicals when  chewed on. Or, consult Greenpeace’s Toy Report Card to learn which toy  manufacturers have eliminated PVC from their products.

Concerns about the rising price and supply limits of petroleum, as  well as environmental factors, have spurred the use and development of  bioplastics synthesized from corn, soy, sugar cane, and other crops.  Toyota has started using bioplastics in some of its cars; Wild Oats,  Newman’s Own, and Del Monte have adopted them for deli and food  packages; and even Wal-Mart has begun using a corn based packaging for cut fruit and vegetables. Most of the bioplastic packaging used in the  US is polymerized lactic acid (PLA) made by NatureWorks LLC, a company  owned by Cargill.

Unlike conventional plastics, bioplastics  biodegrade relatively quickly under the right conditions, and they’re  made from annually renewable crops rather than petroleum. PLA can also  be recycled into more of the same product repeatedly, while plastic  can’t. Early reports suggest that bioplastic can be an effective substitute  for petroleum-based plastic. Last July, the Los Angeles Times  published an article about Cargill’s Nebraska facility that  manufactures PLA from corn. “The end products—which include T-shirts,  forks and coffins—look, feel and perform like traditional polyester  and plastic made from a petroleum base,” the article reports. “But the  manufacturing process consumes 50 percent less fossil fuel, even after  accounting for the fuel needed to plant and harvest the corn.”

Playlist 41 Plastiki

1. Bali H’ai     3:29    Juanita Hall  South Pacific (Original Broadway Cast)

2. Calypso      3:49    John Denver     Earth Songs

3. Pacific Ocean Blues         2:37    Dennis Wilson  Pacific Ocean Blue & Bambu –

4. Sail On, Sailor       3:19    The Beach Boys  Greatest Hits Volume 3: The Best Of The Brother Years 1970 – 1986

5. The 3 R’s    2:54    Jack Johnson    Sing-A-Longs & Lullabies For The Film Curious George

6. Weave Me the Sunshine  4:28    Peter, Paul And Mary   The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. Pollution     4:50    Basskick    Sound Of The Nature – Collection 5