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Plastic is not always fantastic

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

When Mr. McGuire told Benjamin in the movie “The Graduate” (1967) that plastics were the future, he had no idea how pervasive his claim would be. Plastics, like diamonds, are forever. Globally, 230 million pounds or so of plastic are produced each year, most of it discarded at some point, so it’s not surprising that plastics have been found on every beach in North America in the guise of water bottles, bottle caps, plastic bags and on and on.

Most trash I find while scuba diving is petroleum based. I find Band-Aids, disposable diapers, fishing line (in the Ecological Reserve!), a computer system (believe it!) and lots of surf wax. The overwhelming plastic waste includes credit-card room keys, children’s toys, CDs, flip-flops and sunglasses. Plastic may never disappear, but it does disintegrate, and then it creates new problems. Plastic bits that can only be seen under a microscope lens may persist in the ocean for hundreds or even thousands of years. In the Central North Pacific, home of the so-called “Giant Garbage Patch,” plastic specks outweigh zooplankton (small or microscopic animals in the form of adults, larvae and eggs that drift in the ocean) by 6 to 1. Zooplankton make up the next generation of fish and invertebrates or may end up as food for various marine species like fish and seabirds. These critters unknowingly ingest the plastic or chemicals released from plastic along with the zooplankton.

According to an article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (K. Betts, 2008), the amount of plastic decomposing in the ocean may be a long-term problem for marine food webs. Larger plastic debris mostly floats on the surface, but microscopic-size plastic (microplastic) particles waft through the water and may settle on the seafloor. Dense areas of such decomposing microplastic have been shown to hold PCB concentrations more than a million times greater than that of the surrounding water. Mussels, which filter food out of the water, collect microplastics in their digestive tracts. Common marine worms, animals that burrow into the mud bottom, also build up microplastics that settle in sediments where the worms make their homes.

Whatever the debris, there is one certain connection — people. Most plastic comes from land: storm drains and sewers, picnickers, beachgoers, fishers, aftereffects of waterside sporting events, lawns, parking lots, streets and boating gear, for a short list. It starts with us, and it returns to haunt us. Here’s an example: In a simple chain reaction, zooplankton consume toxins and, in turn, are eaten by anchovies, which are, in turn, preyed upon by yellowfin tuna, which, in turn, become dinner for humans. Since it’s fair to assume that one zooplankton morsel won’t fill the stomach of an anchovy, and one anchovy won’t satisfy a tuna, you can visualize how toxins concentrate as they make their way to larger and larger animals until they finally find their way onto our plate.

No one doubts that plastic products benefit our lives, from its role in medical and safety equipment to other technologies. Yet not all plastic is necessary, and we can no longer ignore its long-lasting effects. We won’t ever know if Benjamin took Mr. McGuire’s advice, but we do know it took more than a village to create today’s crisis, and it’s up to us to find our way out of the plastic bag in which we’ve put ourselves.

No matter who you are, you can make a difference!

Participate in local cleanups (listed in the paper for Earth Day) or do your own. It’s a real eye-opener.

Keep cloth bags in your car. Forget your bag? Do you really need a plastic bag for your one or two purchased items?

Avoid plastics that don’t have a “1” or “2” printed in the triangle as they are not collected by city recycling.

Set an example for your children. What we do today will determine their future.

Become an ocean steward. Several laws regulate litter and debris but they do not guarantee everyone complies. If you see a plastic bag or other trash on the ground, pick it up and secure it in a container. That’s what you would do on your property, so expand your ownership boundaries to include all outdoor spaces.

— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to