Using our nurdles
By Arthur BLACK
Aug 19 2007
Know what a nurdle is? You should. We’re pumping five and a half quadrillion of them into the environment each year. They’ll all be around for the next 500 years.
Nurdles are grains, granules, kernels, pellets – of that most familiar of modern-day materials, plastic. An amazing phenomenon, plastic. We’ve only been producing the stuff on a large scale for 50-odd years yet already it permeates every stratum of our lives. Our clothes are increasingly made of plastic; our cars and airplanes and boats are largely plastic. So are our cell phones, our credit cards, our sunglasses and our artificial heart valves.
I’m typing these words on a plastic keyboard.
Billions of items that were once made out of metal or wood are now plastic. But unlike aluminum or cedar, plastic doesn’t degrade when we’re finished with it. Of all the billions of tons of plastic we’ve produced in the past half century, not one nurdle of it has died a natural death. A tiny fraction has been incinerated (transformed into a different, less visible form of pollution); the rest is still with us, in landfill sites, in vacant lots.
But mostly in our oceans. One time I met a woman who had traveled all over the world. Tell me the most amazing thing you ever saw, I said. She didn’t even hesitate. “On the shores of the Red Sea”, she said. “I looked down from a hill one morning at dawn and saw thousands – millions – of ghostly white, blue, green and yellow creatures wafting across the sand away from the water, as far as the eye could see.”
What were they, I asked – storks? Flamingos? Seagulls?
“Plastic bags,” she said. They had washed up on the shore, dried out in the sun, and begun to migrate who knows where.
About 1,000 miles off the coast of California there’s an undulating blob of bags and other plastic crap going round and round and round. It is the size of two New Brunswicks. It will rotate out there for centuries after you and I are dead.
It’s a wonder we aren’t buried in plastic bags. We manufacture 500 billion of the things – a million every minute – each year. And we throw them all away – except they refuse to go away – they stay, and the damage they do is nigh incalculable. The discarded plastic bags that make their way into our waters wreak havoc with ocean life. Sea turtles mistake them for their favourite food – jellyfish. They eat the bags and die. Dolphins, porpoises and a host of sea creatures think they’re seaweed and gulp them down. What’s really sad is, plastic bags are a frill, a sop to our sloth and thoughtlessness. We could easily bring our own, re-usable cloth bags to the grocery store. Broccoli doesn’t care how it gets from the checkout counter to the refrigerator.
Happily, there seems to be a grass-roots revolt growing against this most disposable and despicable form of plastics pollution. Last year, filmmaker Rebecca Hosking caused a mini-revolution in a small town in England. Hosking had spent a year filming life – and death — on the beaches of Hawaii. When she returned to her home town of Modbury, she set up a local screening of her film and invited the town’s 43 shopkeepers to attend. “Come and see where the plastic bags you hand out end up,” she told them. They saw sea turtles gasping and choking on plastic bags. They saw dolphins, belly up in the surf; sea birds enmeshed in plastic. When the film was done and the lights came up, Hosking asked for a show of hands in support of a voluntary ban on plastic bags. Unanimous. And Modbury became the first town in Europe to be plastic-bag free.
Other jurisdictions are taking action too. Five years ago, Ireland slapped a ‘plas tax’ on all plastic bags sold in the country. The tax not only raised millions of Euros which were subsequently channeled towards environmental projects, it also reduced the use of plastic bags in Ireland by an astonishing 95 percent.
In 2002, officials in Bangla Desh discovered the primary cause of flooding that had inundated two-thirds of the country twice in a decade – discarded plastic bags had clogged the nation’s drainage system. The government imposed a total ban on polythene bags. No major floods since.
Last year, Hong Kong called for a ‘voluntary’ ban on plastic-bag use. So far, Hong Kong supermarkets have handed out 80 million fewer plastic bags.
When you think of it, it’s all ‘voluntary’ in the end. If we wait for our trudging, begrudging, snail-paced governments to act we’ll be up to our Adam’s apples in plastic.
So, what to say when the check-out clerk says “Paper or plastic?”?
Not ‘plastic’ for sure – but chopping down a tree to produce a grocery bag seems like a pretty Faustian bargain, too.
How about “Neither, thanks – I brought my own bags.”?