The image above is a photograph taken from space of a gyre off the coast of Japan. The green swirl is actually quite brown; it is the collection of some of humanity’s most indestructible rubbish – plastic. There are about 5 gyres of this type in the world’s oceans, ranging from the size of Texas to the size of Africa.
A little over half a century ago, scientists came up with a brilliant idea, a new material that would have one of the biggest influences on all aspects of modern society. From toys, to food wrap, to beauty products, to clothing, plastic has provided a cheaper, more durable alternative. It has fueled the economies of the Asia Pacific coast, and is now helping India and Kenya, who are each producing thousands of tons of plastic bags each month. Plastic has also become on of man’s most lasting impressions on the earth.
We bury most of our waste in landfills. This is not a very effective disposal, as polymers, among other materials, have a slowed degradation when they are not exposed to the sun, but rather kept in a cool, dry place. However, we are able to have better control over our garbage when we quarantine it away from sensitive life forms and plant shrubbery over it, creating somewhat of a carbon neutralizing effect.
In reality, much of our litter ends up in the sea, partly through whatever beauty and cleaning products seep through our drains, partly through wind that blows waste off of landfills, and partly through the tons of trash littered into the ocean from modern navies and commercial ships. Some 90% of the waste in our planet’s waters is plastic. Here is a brief background to the substance:
Created in a garage laboratory in Yonkers, NY around the time of World War II, plastic is a combination of carbon and hydrogen. Around the time of the discovery, scientists everywhere began playing with long hydrocarbon molecular chains. Adjustments in these chains affected the durability, functionality, and aesthetics of this material. It was around the same time that plastics began to replace other materials, first in the war and subsequently for commercial use; preserving food, replacing more expensive materials such as metals in toys and other products, and providing for flexible, cheaper clothing material.
There are two huge problems that became immediately apparent to the world. The first is the durability of this material. Except for a tiny amount of plastic that has been incinerated, the vast majority of all plastic produced in the past 60 years is still somewhere in our environment. The substance is very difficult to decompose, but when this does occur, the material breaks down into small particles, comparable to grains of sand. These particles are carried by winds to the ocean, and are eventually mistaken for food by birds and jellyfish, which end up dying because the plastic blocks their digestive tracts. To put this point in perspective, we have to consider the world’s lowest (and therefore most important) step in the food pyramid, plankton. While plankton is abundant and is eaten by many different creatures (which are subsequently eaten by larger ones and eventually humans), there is currently six times as much plastic in the ocean as there is plankton. When organisms confuse the two (an increasing instance, as the polymers continue breaking down into pellets), it is of a direct detriment to humans.
The second huge problem that plastic poses lies in its composition. As a substance built from hydrogen and carbon, it will eventually (over the course of tens of thousands of years) break down into oxygen, water, and carbon dioxide. In a way, by creating plastic, we are ensuring that even if humans die out, carbon will continue to slowly and uniformly be released into the atmosphere. While this second problem may seem slightly less of an immediate consequence, we have to consider the sheer size of plastic on this planet and the fact that we are continuously creating more, without reusing or scrapping our old waste.
Going back to the first setback, we have to realize that as it stands right now, most of our oceans are tainted with the substance and we have to start thinking of alternatives. Researcher and founder of Algita Marine Research Foundation, Charles Moore, has been driven to study plastics and believes that the material is currently the most common surface feature of the world’s oceans. There are, however, ways around every problem and this one is no exception.
I am currently looking into plastic alternatives. Stay tuned to learn of ways to avoid plastics.
In his article last week in the New York Times Magazine on the greening of geopolitics in America, Thomas Friedman brought up a very important point on the battle between “Mother Nature and Father Greed.” While the United States may shift to a greener energy policy as awareness grows and political power shifts towards a more liberal agenda, the effects may be relatively insignificant. The problem with this is that the West is more inclined to ponder the effects of global warming because it can afford to do so. Countries like China will continue growing their per capita energy usage, but will still have millions of people living on a very meager salary; the government will not spend money on systems of energy production that minimize CO2 output. As world consumption swings from the hands of the technologically advanced Western powers and into the grasp of the poorer, underdeveloped masses of the East, the West may start to see its own advances in conservation as somewhat inconsequential. This tipping in influence however, should not blind our own efforts.
In the U.S., Wal-Mart has just introduced compact fluorescent bulbs, which use ¼ the energy of regular bulbs and last 10 times as long. The company has a reach of 100 million customers; if everyone bought just one bulb, they would be indirectly cutting CO2 emissions by 45 billion pounds (not to mention saving $3 billion in the process).<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–> Since the company will be saving money, this is a logical move for Eastern companies who hold a similar influence in their respective countries. However, the East has even more reforms to offer.
The People’s Government decided, in 1978, to reform their economy by encouraging the privatization of businesses and fostering education. This is indisputably the reason for China’s growth, with per capita income nearly quadrupling in the past 15 years.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ii]<!–[endif]–> With the reforms also came the liberalization of performance quotas, where industries and companies were allowed to set there own quotas as they are the most knowledgeable on their respective products and markets. Even so, the government still maintains control over other social policies, not excluding the natural environment. Seeing the result of pollution first-hand in the levels of smog in Shanghai and Beijing, the government has recently voiced its concern.
The results were evident in April of this year at the Shanghai auto show. Chinese automakers unveiled prototypes for fuel cell cars, gasoline-electric hybrid cars and electric battery cars. Meanwhile, our own staggering giant, GM, among others European companies, is cooperating with Chinese firms in order to develop hybrid cars to the government’s liking. The government of China has also raised its consumption tax on gasoline inefficient cars (i.e. American trucks) to as much as 20%, while cutting it to 1% for those with high mpg figures.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iii]
While these figures are ahead of the U.S.’s own policies, this kind of initiative is only apparent in China’s transportation industry. In order to further steer China, India, and other developing behemoths in the right (green) direction, our own policies have to be ahead of theirs. While the world’s consumption and growth figures may be weighed down increasingly more by the East, China and India still look to Western consumption standards, practices, and desires. To this effect, Western governments have to raise the standards of their country’s companies, thereby providing a model for the rest of the world’s production objectives. So far, Europe has set the pace in the world, while the U.S. has consistently been a laggard (in this form of innovation). This is the real problem; our reforms are too slow. America has seen the lowest performance in its automotive industry this decade. While we cannot attribute this all to the lack of better federal regulations, we can certainly see that perhaps a libertarian approach to CO2 emissions is, as the world has proven, a stale idea.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–> Glenn Prickett of Conservation International, a Wal-Mart advisor, quoted in “The Power of Green,” New York Times Magazine, April 15, 2007, section 6.
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ii]<!–[endif]–> The International Monetary Fund
<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iii]<!–[endif]–> International Herald Tribune
Welcome to Goal Green a new blog space dedicated to informing the public about the state of our environment and the reality of our current options on a local, national, and international level. First I would like to explain the purpose of this blog. As of recent, there has been much talk about the environmental problems that the Earth is facing. Environmental groups are beginning to be taken seriously for the first time. Politicians are no longer discarding the implications of carbon emissions because of the wealthy pollutants that make their careers possible. This is a time in which we are starting to turn our heads forward and look down the avenue of our future.
You may notice that the media has quiet frequently been covering some of the highlights of our fight with climate change—this is a good thing. People in the first-world are being informed about the side-effects of their manufacturing and consumption processes. At this stage in the progression of the human race, we are both rich enough and smart to change this. In this way, we are seeing the media bring about public awareness which in turn is shifting towards a change in policies. However, there are two fundamental problems that are clear to me.
The first is that the media still limits the issues that it covers in the environmental debate. We here much talk about the efforts to shift the automobile industry into a green gear and the implications of America not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol after having signed it, but few of us are aware of the consequences of using tissue paper or eating beef. To make it clear, I am in no way advocating that we stop living on this Earth in order to further its existence; I am simply an advocate of public knowledge on these issues and the steps we can take to create a lasting effect.
The second problem that bothers me is the misunderstanding we have with the alternatives available to us in regard to current, environmentally taxing, “brown” technologies and energy sources. We are happy to welcome fresh ideas from politicians when it comes to alternative energy, but do we really understand if this is the best option available to us? On this site, I will conduct and present extensive research uncovering the pros and cons of different policies and energy options. I will talk about why both President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger have jumped on the hydrogen energy bandwagon and what it means to every American as well as to every citizen of this planet.
In a future of carbon footprint measurements and alternative energy initiatives, my aim is to inform whoever is willing. My vision is a public united on a belief in Earth and humanity living in mutualism, rather than parasitism. I would like to live in an environment that rewards us for respecting it. My goal is to find out how. My goal is Goal Green.