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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Modern Invention of Waste (p. 99)

From chapter "Plastic"

Here is the bottom line: the world is being killed. It is being murdered. And one of the ways it is being murdered is that it is being poisoned: the waste products of this culture do not help landbases—as waste products are supposed to do, and have always done—but instead they harm and kill them. In nature there is no waste. Waste in this sense is a modern invention. And it’s a rotten one.

As epidemiologist Rosalie Bertel has pointed out, the probable fate of our species is extermination by poisoning. We could at this point add that this is the probable—in fact looming—fate for the oceans, the air, the soil, the bodies of most every living being.

All of the fancy talk of sustainability—by us and others—is just dancing around the central issue: this culture is killing the planet.

This culture is killing the planet.
This culture is killing the planet.
This culture is killing the planet.

If we repeat this enough times, perhaps we will start to comprehend even the tiniest terrifying bit of what this means, and we will begin to act as if any of this matters to us.

I have in front of me a photograph. It is a photograph of a turtle. Or what would be a turtle. Or what could or should be a turtle, and of course still is a turtle, but is a turtle who got a plastic ring caught around the shell’s middle.

The turtle grew. The shell surrounding the ring did not. The turtle—and I wish I were making this up—looks like an hourglass. I first saw this photograph a few weeks ago, and have not been able to get it out of my head (nor my heart). But of course there is a difference between feeling empathy for another and actually having to live the life of that other. I can walk away. I can live my life pretending nothing is wrong. The turtle cannot do that. The plastic ring deformed the turtle, changed the turtle’s life for much the worse.

Now I have another picture before me. It is of a river, or so I am told. I cannot tell, because there’s too much trash. As the accompanying article states: “It was once a gently flowing river, where fishermen cast their nets, sea birds came to feed and natural beauty left visitors spellbound. Villagers collected water for their simple homes and rice paddies thrived on its irrigation channels. Today, the Citarum is a river in crisis, choked by the domestic waste of nine million people and thick with the cast-off from hundreds of factories. So dense is the carpet of refuse that the tiny wooden fishing craft which float through it are the only clue to the presence of water. Their occupants no longer try to fish. It is more profitable to forage for rubbish they can salvage and trade—plastic bottles, broken chair legs, rubber gloves—risking disease for one or two pounds a week if they are lucky.”

And now another picture. It is of the skeleton of a sea gull. Inside the rib cage is a mound of plastic. There’s a sense in which this picture is less horrible than the previous ones, since it could have been staged: someone could have placed the plastic inside the skeleton.  But I know that a study of fulmars—a type of seagull—in the North Sea revealed that the gulls had an average of forty-four pieces of plastic in their stomachs (weighing what in a human would be the equivalent of five pounds). One animal had consumed and retained more than 1000 pieces of plastic.

Now I see a picture of a sea turtle with a plastic bag hanging out of its mouth: creatures in the ocean often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Sometimes they eat them. Sometimes they die.

Now I see a picture of a “ghost net,” a plastic fishing net that was cut loose from a commercial fishing vessel. The net hangs in the water, fills with fish, turtles, sea mammals, sea birds—anyone captured by it—and eventually sinks to the bottom. When the bodies decompose sufficiently to fall apart, the net floats again toward the surface, where it begins this process anew.
I’m sure by now you know the numbers. Marine trash kills more than a million seabirds and 100,000 mammals and turtles each year, as well as unimaginable numbers of fish—each and every one of these an individual worthy of consideration. There is at least six times more plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean than phytoplankton (imagine trying to eat and six out of every seven swallows bring only plastic: it is no wonder that so many sea creatures are starving to death, bellies full of plastic: others die of constipation brought on by plastic blocking their intestines: having suffered a blocked intestine, with its pain at least an order of magnitude worse than a broken bone, I can tell you that I cannot imagine many more excruciating ways to die). This plastic is not degrading, but merely breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, until by now it is routinely found inside the cells of phytoplankton.

Plastic is everywhere in the oceans—and I mean everywhere—but it also accumulates where currents carry it. In these places the essence and endpoint of this culture could not be more clear. As one author wrote, “It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.”

The article continues, “How did all the plastic end up here? How did this trash tsunami begin? What did it mean? If the questions seemed overwhelming, Moore would soon learn that the answers were even more so, and that his discovery had dire implications for human—and planetary—health. As Alguita glided through the area that scientists now refer to as the ‘Eastern Garbage Patch,’ Moore realized that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles. Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled across the 21st-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body.”

That particular “Garbage Patch” is nearly the size of Africa. And there are six others. Combined, they cover 40 percent of all of the oceans, or 25 percent of the entire planet.

It’s not merely river and ocean creatures—and rivers and oceans themselves—who are being murdered by plastic. So are land dwellers, including us. And frankly, although I love humans, at this point I feel even worse for those like the turtle whose species have done nothing to deserve this than I do for most especially the rich humans whose lifestyles are causing these murders. At least rich humans get to drink from plastic cups and play with plastic Barbies and watch televisions housed in plastic (using electricity flowing through wires insulated with plastic) before these plastics poison and suffocate us all.

And plastics are poisoning and suffocating us all.