The Peril of Plastic

From The New York Times:

Published: May 22, 2011

HONG KONG — For bizarre items floating in the ocean, try topping this: The upper half of a set of false teeth, seen bobbing around in the South China Sea.

“I remember thinking: ‘How on earth did it get there?”’ said Lindsay Porter, a marine scientist based in the Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu, who spotted the item from a research vessel about 200 kilometers, or 125 miles, off China in 2009.

The teeth, gripped in their plastic gums, are part of the millions of tons of plastic trash that somehow ends up in oceans around the world every year. Mostly, it is more mundane stuff, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life: picnic plates, bottles, cigarette lighters, toys, spoons, flip-flops, condoms.

Taken together, the virtually indestructible mass is now so large that it is causing environmentalists, government officials and the plastics industry itself to sit up and take note. Many scientists believe marine plastic pollution is one of the major issues — along with climate change — facing the planet.

The problem is not the plastic itself: Even those who lobby against plastic pollution acknowledge that plastic materials help combat climate change, for example by reducing the weight — and thus fuel consumption — of vehicles, or by helping to insulate buildings.

The problem is the sheer amount of the stuff out there. Low-cost, lightweight and durable, plastic erupted onto the world stage in the 1950s. Annual production of 1.5 million tons back then has swelled to about 250 million tons now, according to the trade association PlasticsEurope .

Half of the plastic produced is used only once before being discarded. Think packaging, shampoo bottles, disposable razors, yogurt cups.

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