Rubber Ducky

How Plastic Is Contaminating Our World

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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The single scariest thing I’ve read all year was the cover article in the January 2007 issue of Harper’s , "Moby Duck," by Donovan Hohn. What it lacks in gore and mayhem it more than makes up for with a breath-stealing, authentically weird scenario–one made more frightening by the realization that this is not fantasy, it is true. There will be no waking up from this nightmare.

You can spot the issue I’m discussing by the picture of a large, seemingly innocent yellow ducky on the cover. The ominously cropped photo of a bathtub toy is a teaser for Hohn’s article. Make a point of digging it out and reading it. You may have trouble sleeping through the night for weeks afterward.

In particular, if you saw Al Gore’s
An Inconvenient Truth and couldn’t stop mulling over its message, you should read “Moby Duck .” It adds another twist to the already-dreadful environmental catastrophe we’re creating. Gore’s focus is the impact of burning fossil fuels; Hohn’s is what we are causing by converting petroleum into plastic.

The duck on the cover was one of 28,000 floating plastic toys in a cargo container that washed overboard into the North Pacific somewhere between Japan and Alaska in 1992. A powerful storm caused a retaining cable to break, and the container (along with several others) toppled into the ocean currents.

The others sank, presumably to the bottom of the sea where they remain to this day. This crate broke open and released all 28,000 floating animals to the forces of Nature. Fifteen years later, I think it would be fair to say the plastic ducks, turtles and frogs have brought Nature to her knees.

It took less than a year for the first of the toys to wash up on the beaches of Alaska. Ten years later, they began showing up on beaches in Maine—on the Atlantic Ocean. They had somehow, during that decade, bobbed and floated their way through the polar ice floes of the Arctic and were still traveling with the currents around the globe.

Hohn’s point is the damned things are indestructible. Freezing cold, constant exposure to salt water and searing sun, hurricane-force winds, collisions with icebergs, polar bears and narwhales—nothing daunts the tiny floating detritus of industrial ingenuity. Even their colors don’t fade.

The eternal plastic ducky is a metaphor for the entire cornucopia of plastic geegaws we’re churning out daily from factories around the globe. The spew of chemical creativity is relentless. And it is forever. Less than 5 percent of all plastics being manufactured today will be recycled. The rest just sits there, overflowing our landfills, blowing around our empty lots, turning to colorful fragments underneath our sofa cushions.

Midway Island, a tiny speck of rock in the vast water world of the mid-Pacific, is a favored nesting spot for millions of ocean birds of a dozen or more species. Last year a biologist studying the Midway flocks made a chilling discovery: The island is now home to another inhabitant–at least four million
plastic “disposable” cigarette lighters now cover its beaches and rocks, with thousands more passing through the alimentary canals of the birds every day.

Tossed overboard by sailors or dumped into the oceans by waste disposal companies with big city garbage, the lighters don’t really “dispose.” They endure. Eventually a gull, an albatross, a puffin or a dodo will swallow it, presumably because it looks like a small fish. In time it will be dropped onto the beach and become available for further swallowing by another bird.

One thing we know for sure: Cigarette lighters contain little in the way of nutrition. Many birds die with the things in their guts. When the bird carcass disappears, the lighter remains. Like plastic duckies, it never goes away.

We are filling up our world with plastic junk. It can be incredibly valuable and useful—but at some point it has to be discarded. Then it doesn’t go away. It never rots, never turns into loam, never gets consumed by microbes, earthworms or insects. It is indestructible.

does occur in time is that it can break into ever-smaller pieces. And these in turn can also fracture, chip, flake or get pulverized into fragments smaller yet. They can become so small we stop noticing them. But they don’t ever completely go away. At some point they begin releasing toxins into the soil, air or water where these impossibly small flecks of plastic wind up.

The toxins kill coral. The toxins poison the food chain. The toxins may be poisoning humans as well. Samples of beach sand from every spot on the planet are now universally contaminated with these tiny plastic fragments. No place on Earth is safe. As time goes by, petrochemical waste products are replacing Nature herself.

Hohn’s conclusion is disturbing. “A PVC duck in the bathtub may well be harmless to your child, but no one yet knows how post-consumer plastics that escape the landfill are altering the chemistry of the environment.”

He worries that plastics could be doing to our civilization what lead did to the Romans. “The seas have become synthetic. The planet is sick. It can no longer recycle its ingredients or purge itself of pollutants.”

I find that thought immensely frightening. I hope someone is paying attention.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail

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