[*Non-subscribers can participate in the discussion, but may not receive the book. To become a subscriber, click here.]To introduce this debate about Canadians’ impact on the Earth, here’s an exclusive excerpt from the book where Weisman discusses the everlasting nature of plastic:
The World Without Us
By Alan Weisman
Two sources of tiny plastic particles hadn’t before occurred to [University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard] Thompson. Plastic bags clog everything from sewer drains to the gullets of sea turtles who mistake them for jellyfish. Increasingly, purportedly biodegradable versions were available. Thompson’s team tried them. Most turned out to be just a mixture of cellulose and polymers. After the cellulose starch broke down, thousands of clear, nearly invisible plastic particles remained.
Some bags were advertised to degrade in compost piles as heat generated by decaying organic garbage rises past 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “Maybe they do. But that doesn’t happen on a beach, or in salt water.” He’d learned that after they tied plastic produce bags to moorings in Plymouth Harbor. A year later you could still carry groceries in them.”
Even more exasperating was what his Ph.D. student Mark Browne discovered while shopping in a pharmacy. Browne pulls open the top drawer of a laboratory cabinet. Inside is a feminine cornucopia of beauty aids: shower massage creams, body scrubs, and hand cleaners. Several are by boutique labels: Neova Body Smoother, SkinCeuticals Body Polish, and DDF Strawberry Almond Body Polish. Others are international name brands: Pond’s Fresh Start, a tube of Colgate Icy Blast toothpaste, Neutrogena, Clearasil. Some are available in the United States, others only in the United Kingdom. But all have one thing in common.
“Exfoliants: little granules that massage you as you bathe.” He selects a peach-colored tube of St. Ives Apricot Scrub; its label reads, 100% natural exfoliants. “This stuff is okay. The granules are actually chunks of groundup jojoba seeds and walnut shells.” Other natural brands use grape seeds, apricot hulls, coarse sugar, or sea salt. “The rest of them,” he says, with a sweep of his hand, “have all gone to plastic.”
On each, listed among the ingredients are “micro-fine polyethylene granules,” or “polyethylene micro-spheres,” or “polyethylene beads.” Or just polyethylene.
“Can you believe it?” Richard Thompson demands of no one in particular, loud enough that faces bent over microscopes rise to look at him. “They’re selling plastic meant to go right down the drain, into the sewers, into the rivers, right into the ocean. Bite-size pieces of plastic to be swallowed by little sea creatures.”
Plastic bits are also increasingly used to scour paint from boats and aircraft. Thompson shudders.
“One wonders where plastic beads laden with paint are disposed. It would be difficult to contain them on a windy day. But even if they’re contained, there’s no filter in any sewage works for material that small. It’s inevitable. They end up in the environment.”