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Monday, July 23, 2007

Death by Plastic

posted by on July 23 at 16:08 PM


Of all the disturbing, eye-opening images brought up during Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us” presentation last week, one stood out most vividly. Weisman was talking about the widespread transition to plastic packaging 50-some years ago and the accumulated environmental effect of the 120 billion pounds of plastic produced every year now. There is, he reported, a floating mass of plastic bobbing in the Pacific Ocean, composed of non-biodegradable petrochemicals. He said this flotilla of eternal junk is estimated to be some 800 miles wide, bigger than Texas.

There are plenty of reports about the “Eastern Garbage Patch.” It circles in the North Pacific Gyre, a slow, clockwise-spinning current in a vast swath of usually untraversed ocean between Japan and the West Coast of the US. What used to be one of the most pristine, remote, and desolate places on earth has become a swirling trash heap.

The problem is plastic. It floats, it blows, it doesn’t biodegrade. Instead it photo-degrades, meaning as it floats in the currents, it’s broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller particles but never completely disappears.


It’s no longer just a six-pack ring showing up around a seagull’s neck—plastic pollution is affecting the entire food chain. Trace particles of petroleum-based plastics are showing up in zooplankton, the microscopic animals that form the basis of the aquatic food chain. From bottom to top, we’re all eating plastic.

And we’re getting massive islands of garbage and endless schools of plastic bags in what used to be untouched ocean.

Thankfully, Seattle is considering a ban on plastic bags. That’s something we all have to get behind 100%. It’s hard to believe we—ANY city, really—has gone this long without one. Convenience is no argument against health.

RSS icon Comments


i'm so tired of hipster turles and their plastic belts.

Posted by infrequent | July 23, 2007 4:16 PM

I don't like... in theory, yes, but not at the level its at.

All plastic bags... Nordstrom, Macys shopping bags? Glad bags? What about non-bag plastics, like Saran Wrap or shrink wrap? What would the ban do if the plastic was imported from Shoreline, Everett, or Tacoma? Or is the ban ONLY to eliminate the choice between plastic or paper bags in grocery stores, with no enforcement attached? (like Seattle requiring everyone to pay for food waste composting (single-family households only), but making it an option for the 'paying' customer to carry through?).

Posted by Phenics | July 23, 2007 4:22 PM

Our Trader Joes lets you enter a weekly raffle for a $25 TJs gift cert everytime you bring your own bags. I have to admit that while I am an environmentalist in theory, that this raffle is really the thing that led me to start bringing in my own bags for shopping all the time. I wish more stores would follow in its footsteps. It might make more people regular BYOB-ers, which I am now, even when I'm not going to Trader Joes.

Posted by arduous | July 23, 2007 4:22 PM

@3 where's you Trader Joe's? I've gone to Cap Hill and U-Dist and haven't seen that.

Posted by Chris | July 23, 2007 4:26 PM

We need to recycle what plastic bags we have and try to get people to use cloth bags. The QFC in U Village sells them for $1.25 each, they don't wear out and they're easier to carry (plus they don't break!). I use mine every time I can remember, and keep any plastic bags to recycle later when I don't.

Posted by Gomez | July 23, 2007 4:29 PM

Unless plastic is two-dimensional*, comparing it with the size of Texas is quote meaningless.

*Plastic is not, in fact, two-dimensional.

Posted by NJ Matt | July 23, 2007 4:33 PM

Also, yes, I'm not naive enough to believe this will solve the entire problem. But it's a big step in the right direction.

Posted by Gomez | July 23, 2007 4:33 PM

To quote the great George Carlin: "The earth doesn't share our prejudice towards plastic...plastic came out of the earth, the earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children...could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself, didn't know how to make it, needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question...why are we here?: plastic, assholes."

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | July 23, 2007 4:33 PM

I fully intended to comment some sincere somber sort of comment, but #1 made me literally clap my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

Posted by Carollani | July 23, 2007 4:38 PM

Yeah, I definitely seek the input of comedians when I'm considering scientific and social issues. It's nice being able to reduce complex issues to glib little quotes. What's with toothpaste!?

Posted by Jay | July 23, 2007 4:39 PM

@10 - please see: Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, Rosey O'Donald, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, etc., etc. and etc.

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | July 23, 2007 4:49 PM

Won't a ban on plastic bags significantly increase paper bag consumption, thus contributing to deforestation? Seems like there's always a tradeoff involved. (Yes, I try to avoid bag use when I can, but it's not always feasible.)

Posted by tsm | July 23, 2007 4:49 PM

rather than offering an incentive for using your own bags (most stores knock a nickel off your total for each bag), i would rather see stores charge for plastic bags.

they do it in england, and i'm sure in many other spots around the globe. it seems to be a much more effective reminder to bring your own re-usable bag each time you shop.

this plastic thing has me real concerned lately, especially with my high bottled water consumption.

Posted by kerri harrop | July 23, 2007 4:52 PM

If plastic is bad, and we don’t want it floating around in our ocean, and the only acceptable solution is to outlaw its use, then man up and ban all plastic. Not just bags. Life went on for a long time in a pre-plastic world… Why not make Seattle the first 100% plastic-free city. Ban the sale, ownership and use of plastic anywhere in King County. (Then you might actually be making a difference.)

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | July 23, 2007 4:57 PM

If we lived in a reasonably civilized world, clothe bags would be the only legal option, but of course we live in a world where everyone thinks their precious rights are being violated anytime their fat asses have to do anything less than convenient (because certainly no one else has a right to a decent living environment). That's why we're fucked. Most people in this country can't be bothered to do a fucking thing for the environment.

Plastic bags should be banned and customers charged for using paper bags. I applaud the plastic bad idea, but it's only the beginning.

Posted by Jay | July 23, 2007 4:58 PM

bag your plastic bags (and similar types of plastic), tie a knot so they stay secured in that bag, and put in your recycling.

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | July 23, 2007 4:58 PM

Jay: you finally got it right - "the plastic bad idea"

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | July 23, 2007 5:01 PM

11: Sorry, but I don't go to comedians, even reasonably smart ones, for the same reason I don't go to pundits. They're not experts and they don't have policy ideas- they're just opinion makers. You could be a super genius comedian, but unless you're offering reasonable (and worked out) policy ideas or real critiques, I'm not going to form my ideas around your routine. One of the reasons this country is so fucked up is people form their opinions based on personality. At best, the Daily Show and Colbert satirize- but would I go to them to figure out environmental problems? Fuck no. Carlin's plastic routine might be funny, but it's also stupid to the max.

Posted by Jay | July 23, 2007 5:03 PM

17: I've always had it right, long before George Carlin told me I was. I didn't say plastic is good, and have advocated banning it on this very forum before- in fact, I've been against it since I was a teenager. I just don't go to comedians to learn these things.

Posted by Jay | July 23, 2007 5:06 PM

Wow, really blew the lid off the whole "comedians are not level headed policy making types" discovery!

Of course you're not supposed to listen to George Carlin and think "What a great idea, let's implement it immediately." (Or else, no one could golf...because homeless people would be living there.)

You MIGHT, however, be encouraged to think about issues with an unexpected perspective added to the way you've been conditioned to think--as the best observational comedians CAN add to a discussion...even if what they're saying is meant more to entertain than to educate...

And in the Carlin bit referenced above, one can be informed about our rush to condemn anything that is petrochemical based as something wholly man-made and therefore inherently wrong...and to entertain the idea that we might not need to race ourselves into the pre-industrial era to cleanse ourselves of our man-made sins...

Said another way: Maybe the problem isn't the plastic--the problem is that we are careless with it and it ends up hurting us.

If that thought enters the discussion while at the same time it got an audience to laugh, then that comedian has gone above and beyond the normal call of duty.

But what do I know, I'm just a comedian myself...

Posted by pgreyy | July 23, 2007 5:15 PM

People who think that the pollution situation is not important enough to warrant a reasonable amount of attention are just as bad as the Republicans who say that there is no global warming.

The argument "Oh, a few grocery bags won't really make that much of a difference" is the same argument that people make against recycling. It's so easy to say "One or two cans or bottles don't really matter much, and that won't change anything", but look at all the products made from post-consumer products now. Everyone can do something, even if it's something as simple as bringing your own canvas grocery bag to the store once in awhile.

The pollution problem is a real one, especially in the ocean. Especially since the ocean has been seen as a dumping ground for anything we don't want to deal with right now. And especially since the ocean is so important to our planet's overall health. It all goes together-- pollution, over-expliotation of resources, species extinctions... Of course we can't stop everything all at once, but it is necessary to take small steps.

@6- NJ Matt-- Since when is Texas 2-dimensional? Texas isn't, and neither is plastic.

Posted by Sylvie | July 23, 2007 5:17 PM

@4, sorry I live in LA. But every LA Trader Joe's does this. Maybe you should ask the Seattle Trader Joes to do the same....

Posted by arduous | July 23, 2007 5:20 PM

@14: Well, I'm fucked if I want to drive into town, my car is something like 20% plastic.

Posted by K | July 23, 2007 5:23 PM

Plastic bags are 98% recyclable while paper bags are only 65% recyclable. The problem is that no one seems to know that you can recycle those bags and they just dump them in the trash.

Posted by Angry Andrew | July 23, 2007 5:25 PM

AA - and bubble wrap, and magazine bags, and the plastic bags that sheath your new computer/keyboard/dvd player, etc. Bag it all up, tie it tight (to keep it from blowing away singly), and drop it in the recycling.

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | July 23, 2007 5:32 PM

I'm all for charging for plastic and paper bags. People will haul their own bags to save ten cents, just like they'll drive around the block for 40 minutes to save five dollars on parking.

Here are some good-looking, resuable fancy grocery bags I found online. Of course a plain, canvas bag works too, but these are fun:


Posted by charge it | July 23, 2007 5:50 PM

We should just ban these bags in general. When I lived by myself, I got my groceries weekly and they fit into my (large) backpack. I could certainly make do with cloth bags.

There would only be two (completely unreasonable) objections I could think of:

1. How will I pick up my dog's shit?
2. How will I replace the sheer joy of watching my cats crawl into paper grocery bags?

Posted by Gitai | July 23, 2007 6:03 PM

@6 Unless plastic is two-dimensional*, comparing it with the size of Texas is quote meaningless.

*Plastic is not, in fact, two-dimensional.

Neither is Texas.

Posted by Paulus | July 23, 2007 6:11 PM

Have groceries, stores, restaurant, vendors, all of them, charge for the plastic bags. A minimum amount goes to the government, the rest the merchant keeps.

Posted by Phenics | July 23, 2007 6:14 PM

the blizzard of plastic thrown at us in every package we open is unavoidable. the safety rings on plastic lids & caps are not recyclable. snip them.

even if seattle becomes virtue central, there's a whole nother planet of idiots that are going to consume like 1980s americans for the next 50 years.

the ocean is truly fucked.

Posted by maxsolomon | July 23, 2007 6:16 PM

I like that George Carlin bit about picking your nose.

Posted by SEAN NELSON, EMERITUS | July 23, 2007 6:32 PM

No plastic bags, AT ALL!?!?!?!?!

What about for frozen or drippy stuffs, like meat? Or wet stuff, like lettuce, surely bags for cold wet drippy things will be ok. PLEASE!!! I like those kinds of plastic bags. Keeps my cloth bags clean.

Posted by The Peanut Gallery | July 23, 2007 6:50 PM

"But what do I know, I'm just a comedian myself..."

You said it! Satire is fine and well in propagating certain ideas or novel perspectives, no doubt about it. But I don't find comic observations relevant in these matters beyond making me laugh. Quoting a comedian is fine and well, but it's a little like quoting Sean Hannity in a debate about the environment.

Posted by Jay | July 23, 2007 6:54 PM

I thought that turtle was photoshopped until I saw this.

Think littering is a victimless crime? Think again. Turtles are supposed to be round not shaped like an 8.
Remember kids, cut your 6 pack rings, that's all we ask...


Posted by sad | July 23, 2007 9:10 PM

I am all for reducing plastic waste, but... i am more than skeptical about a pile of trash the size of texas floating in the ocean with no pictures of it and i have never heard of or seen it before... i am hitting the Google to shed some light on this Big Fish tale.

Posted by longball | July 23, 2007 9:40 PM

"..this flotilla of eternal junk is estimated to be some 800 miles wide, bigger than Texas."

Funny..I thought it WAS Texas except the water isn't brown enough.

That poor turtle!

I used to buy canvas bags at QFC but they started price gauging. Started out at about $3 and wound up around $6. Then they just stopped selling them (Harvard and Pike - which I no longer frequent). They last for a while but needed to be replaced if you washed them regularly and you had to wash them.

By the way, has anyone checked out the new Uptown QFC? Pretty fancy store and a nice - if only a one time reprise from the menagerie on Pike. The ready-to-eat deli offers prime rib - not the kind you take home and warm up, but a standing rib roast. As a vegetarian, I'm horrified, of course, and as a consumer I'm shocked at the prices. Storewide they're about 25% higher than other QFCs. All of a sudden they want to be Dean and Deluca's or Balducci's?

Posted by Bauhaus | July 23, 2007 9:56 PM

Not to piss on your parade of self-righteousness, kids, but that garbage patch is mostly made up of shit that falls off of cargo ships in storms. Most of our plastic bags get dumped into landfills, not the ocean.

But hey, "banning" plastic bags is exactly the sort of reactionary, pandering bullshit that makes life in Seattle just that much harder, while providing exactly ZERO net benefit for the environment. many of you twats buy plastic items at Fred Meyer? I'd wager that one foreign-made nalgene-style water bottle does more damage to the environment than a lifetime's supply of plastic bags. Let's ban those, too.


Posted by A Nony Mouse | July 24, 2007 12:20 AM

Better to be an asshat than a stupid twat.

There is no reason why grocery stores need plastic bags. There is no reason why people need plastic bags in every location (and by plastic bags I mean shopping bags, not containment bags, which is what we're talking about obviously); in fact there is no reason for people to have paper bags in most locations. There is no reason to waste the resources if that waste can be avoided altogether by mandating customers bring their own bags. I also believe that there should be federal mandates against unnecessary packaging too- i.e. products like cereal should have only one layer of packaging, instead of two. But it's not like fat fucking Americans are going to stand by and let that happen within a time frame that might actually help. Banning disposable plastic shopping bags will not make life harder, unless you're physically and mentally incompetent, and will reduce a great deal of consumer waste in the Seattle are. Deal with it.

And for the record, I don't buy overpackaged shit either, and certainly not bottled water.

Posted by Jay | July 24, 2007 12:39 AM

@4 Trader Joe's in Kirkland does the raffle thing for gift certificates for bringing in your own bags. They also sell several different models of cloth bags.

Yea, banning plastic bags is a step, but it's really a baby step. People need to be made aware that we need to reduce the amount of packaging altogether. A small example would be the aforementioned Trader Joe's. While I love the fact that they sell items in recyclable containers, there's just no reason that broccoli or zucchini or any number of their items needs to come in plastic at all. And how many of you Seattle coffee drinkers (for the record, I'm one as well) continue to buy new cups at the stand rather than taking one with you for refill? And bottled water is certainly fair game for attacks as much of the time it cannot be distinguished in blind taste tests and it's been proven to be no better than tap water. Rather than refill a convenient bottle I see people buy that crap all of the time and by the case load. Even San Francisco's restaurants have caught a clue and many no longer sell bottled water of any sort. Like the fizzy stuff? It costs a lot of oil the ship that to your restaurant.

The rant could go on and on. Reduction is the real big first step, but it needs to happen across the board and people need to demand it. There's a movement on in England to do just that. It would behoove us if we pushed our political and corporate leaders (do we really need a big box for 1 disk of software) to go beyond plastic bags.

Posted by B.D. | July 24, 2007 2:22 AM


You can pick up dog shit with corn plastic doggy shit bags.

BioBag Dog Waste Bags

Posted by Stephen | July 24, 2007 5:17 AM

Post-consumer waste wise, a 10-20 gal glad trash bag contributes more nasty poly-carbony century's to degrade plastics into the environment than the post-post-consumer waste from a "Shopping Bag". I re-use shopping bags for trash for that very reason. I will then need to switch to buying the heavier grade plastic trash bags with a ban.

Why do I want to hurt the environment? I have no choice, Allied Waste Management and the other trash company's require plastic can liners. Get them to take my trash every week (trash being un-health to my health and all) in paper bags, then this progressive will be behind your liberal drive to ban all shopping bags. If not and the ban goes through, I will need to buy plastic can liners for the landfills. Or do you want me to drive my trash out of town myself in cardboard boxes, every damn week.

Posted by Phenics | July 24, 2007 8:25 AM

Surcharge for plastic bags is the way to go. It's worked wonders in Europe.

It requires a little adjustment at first, but eventually, you get in the habit to fold up, carry and reuse a couple large sturdy bags with you everywhere.

Posted by Aexia | July 24, 2007 8:39 AM

@6 - I think "patch of plastic the size of TX floating in the ocean" is pretty effing meaningful, even if the patch is approaching 2-dimensional (which, obviously, it isn't). It doesn't tell us exactly how big it is, but it does tell us that it's big enough to cover the state of frickin' Texas. Shouldn't that be enough to cause concern?

@35 - I've heard of this before from reputable news sources; it's pretty well documented. Why wouldn't you do your fancy Google verification source before posting about your skepticism?

In general: yeah, we're screwed, the planet is screwed. The best thing we could do for the planet is for the majority of our species to die off, but in the meantime, we should do all we can to minimize things like this. And bottled water? Don't get me started.

Posted by Levislade | July 24, 2007 8:52 AM

Everyone should use reusable bags, no doubt. But the paper used to make grocery bags is made from trees grown on tree farms. Not using paper to prevent deforestation is like not eating corn so that there will be more corn fields. Once everyone stops using paper, tree farms won't be worth anything and strip malls and plat housing will go up instead.
Plastic isn't really recyclable in the sense that you can't take a bunch of shopping bags, grind them up and make more shopping bags, you have to make things that are less demanding, like car stoppers or park benches. Its better than landfilling, but not that much better.

Posted by mikeblanco | July 24, 2007 9:47 AM

I've recently taken on a new viewpoint on this issue.

Everyone blames plastic.

Isn't it true, however, that it's us humans who litter?

If we get rid of plastic, do you think we won't have a litter problem?

Humans are kind of messy and uncaring about the environment.

I think we do over-package things. And I think we could cut down on using plastics.

However, I really think environmentalists and others are ignoring the obvious here: PEOPLE LITTER. The plastic doesn't get there by itself. Replace it with another material, and PEOPLE WILL STILL LITTER.

Now, how do we solve that?

Posted by Matt | July 24, 2007 2:35 PM


I totally thought this was an urban legend also. Turns out, per, that there is a version of the urban legend re: a floating "condom reef" - but the mass of floating garbage is true.,0,5274274,full.story

Posted by dfgh | July 24, 2007 4:48 PM

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