A 21st Century Moonshot

Scott Deshefy


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Plastic bags and packaging were introduced in the 1950s. Transparent cellophane wrappers enabled shoppers to rummage through pre-cut portions of food, already adulterated with waxes and dyes, less appealing sides of which could be hidden by grocers. For durable goods, plastic packaging posed obstacles to light-fingered customers, and giving illusions of grandeur to the smallest of purchases. From perspectives of profit, versatility and strength, plastics have been a lightweight, malleable, nonperishable boon. Contributing mightily to our glut for oil, they’ve been a cheap structural material in everything from toys to automobiles, aircraft components to medical equipment. In the classic 1960s movie, “The Graduate,” mere mention of “plastics” challenged “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me…aren’t you?” for most memorable line.

Widespread, light-weight applications of plastics have lured us into yet another environmental crisis, not only because of their ubiquity but obstinate refusals by many to dispose and recycle them properly. Where ignorance leads, catastrophe follows. Asian nations, seem willing to impose strict laws, monitor compliance and issue stiff fines for refusals to recycle. The West, by contrast, overly concerned with electability, is slow to grasp the seriousness of the problem and react proportionately.

Roughly 8.8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, killing untold millions of marine animals. That’s an ankle-deep equivalent of plastic bags, soda bottles, straws and takeout containers covering an area 34 times the size of Manhattan. According to environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck, mismanaged garbage could multiply two- to tenfold by 2025 unless we act immediately and on a global scale. Nikita Khrushchev, it seems, grossly underestimated America’s propensity for waste. We’re not only burying ourselves in garbage, our litter is destroying aquatic ecosystems covering 70% of the planet. Five massive concentrations of plastic debris (a.k.a. gyres) are floating in the oceans. The largest, between California and Hawaii, is the size of Texas. Plastics are non-biodegradable, becoming smaller and smaller when exposed to sunlight. The seas are thusly becoming slurries of “microplastic” pieces smaller than 5mm, 236,000 tons of which are added from the mainland each year. Microplastics are already suspended in water as deep as 11 kilometers. In fact, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight than fish.

The first Earth Day was such a massive grassroots phenomenon every media outlet celebrated the movement, enabling a responsive Richard Nixon to spearhead more environmental law (e.g., EPA and the Marine Mammals Protection Act) than anyone in the White House before or since. Now, despite the Obama administration adding more than 850,000 square miles of ocean to America’s protected aquatic network, species after species is slipping into extinction. Expanding refuges to protect oceanic wildlife is essential, of course, but plastics and other suspended pollutants don’t respect charted nautical boundaries. Unless we commit to biodegradables and a circular economy, destruction will worsen. In addition to recycling, we must refurbish, reuse, repair and repurpose. Every year, over 100 billion tons of raw material are transformed into products, most of which have only short-term purpose. Just 24% of those resources persist as buildings and other infrastructure, or as vehicles and other machinery with built-in obsolescence. A mere 9% are reused while 67.4% are dispersed into the environment as unrecoverable pollution and waste. 

According to ecotoxicologists, plastics severely threaten over 700 marine wildlife species. All three types of leatherback turtles, who often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, have been autopsied with plastic in their guts. A beached whale in Norway had 30 plastic bags in its stomach. Ninety percent of seabirds, including albatross and petrels, are ingesting plastics to some degree, as are human beings who regularly eat seafood. Because fish species mistake plastic fragments coated in bacteria and algae for food sources, recent studies have found microplastics in nearly a third of the fish sampled at U.S. and Indonesian docks. Mollusks, crustacean, and filter-feeding organisms like coral are particularly susceptible, and we all know how coral reefs are dying already because of climate change. Toxicological risks to humans eating microscopic plastic fibers could range from cancer to liver, kidney and reproductive disorders.

Last March, a dozen or so nations committed to reducing plastic marine litter, part of the UN Clean Seas Initiative. Predictably, the U.S. wasn’t among them. That’s because, in matters of ecology, we’ve become a Country of Can’t and Won’t instead of Gung Ho. Sure, we can invade others at drops off a hat, use drones as assassins, build prisons and cordon the 1st Amendment into “free speech zones,” but when it comes to saving the biosphere from global warming, plastics and other pollutants, we’re consistently lacking intelligence, leadership and will.

Most Americans think John F. Kennedy came out of the chute committed to putting astronauts on the moon. Not so, but in 1961 he was desperate for propaganda to match Sputnik and the orbital flights of Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. Both cosmonauts had become worldwide celebrities and ambassadors for soviet superiority in space. Alan Shepard’s flight, after all, despite the courage shown completing it, had barely broken through Earth’s atmosphere, whereas Khrushchev’s scientists were already planning to build a space station, a project the soviet premier considered practical. Kennedy wanted an area of space exploration where soviet technology hadn’t built an insurmountable lead. He also wanted to distract people from the Bay of Pigs fiasco. NASA administrator James Webb and Werner von Braun, after inviting Kennedy to Cape Canaveral to witness at Atlas rocket test, discussed declaring a mission to the moon. Apparently, the earth-shaking roar of the Atlas propulsion system made Kennedy believe the undertaking was feasible. Was Apollo 11 America’s high water mark and last hurrah for common cause? Leading the world in putting an end to oceanic gyres and atmospheric carbon pollution could go a long way to determining the answer. It’s a 21st century moonshot.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.