Plastic Continent

I guess this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me but it did: 3 million tons of plastic; an island larger than Texas (I thought nothing was larger than Texas), is just floating round and round in the middle of the Pacific, merrily killing things, and everyone agrees it’s already too big a problem for us to do anything about. Yikes!

Story 1        Story 2

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About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

10 Responses to Plastic Continent

  1. Vegard Nossum says:

    Ugh.

    Warning: The following is a bit of a personal ramble. Read with care, or not at all.

    Part of the problem seems to be that no one person is responsible on his/her own. I simply don’t feel guilty when buying a plastic bottle. Should I stop buying them? I probably could, if I put a lot of effort into it. Would it be worth the effort in the end? Would others do the same? Could I convince them to do the same? Can we rely on people’s conscience (once they know the consequences) to stop buying plastic products?

    What about the producers? Could we forbid production of non-reusable plastic products entirely? It would probably make the politician who suggests it unpopular. Is this a democratic problem? And even if a country decided to forbid imports and production of plastic products, however unlikely that is, would it help at all? That’s actually the same problem as in the previous paragraph, just on a different scale, if you want. Even if _we_ do it, what about our neighbours?

    Would it even be possible to carry through such a law? Don’t we depend too much on our everythings: Cars, tyres, houses, computers, wires, phones, other electronic equipment, our bottles, bags, clothes, medical equipment, everything that goes into the production of said things, etc. Can we imagine a world without plastic?

    Where is the solution? Social, political, or perhaps even scientific? A combination, perhaps.

    And since I’m an aspiring scientist: Where can science help?

    This is not so much related to plastic, of course, but it seems that e-books are becoming increasingly popular. No paper waste. Copying and distribution is essentially free and unlimited, assuming that our computers and readers are already made.

    New materials? I saw some mentions of bioplastic, but there were a lot of drawbacks with those as well. Alternative materials? Should we start demanding to have glass bottles instead of plastic bottles? What about food wrappings? The number of things that would have to change in order to get rid of the plastic seems uncountable, unfathomable.

    Also, something comes to mind regarding the cleaning up of the mess. Maybe this idea is completely implausible, but I remembered something about how ants stack up their dead, and an experiment with robots collecting frisbees… Can we create robots that collect the garbage for us, at least the smaller things which would otherwise find their way into the stomachs of animals, in a similar way? A rather small, sunlight-driven vessel that is able to detect and collect the plastic debris, perhaps even a “hive” of such robots, collaborating to push larger pieces of trash to the shores, or perhaps accumulate it in “base stations” where the trash is contained until bigger boats can pick it all up once.

    In any case, I am fond of solutions which propel themselves, e.g. so that once the solution has been found and carried out, it requires little more work to continue functioning ad infinitum. Like a computer program that, once written, can process an indefinite number of input cases, requiring no more work on the part of the programmer. I’m sure there are a dozen more examples. Inductive proofs, perhaps. Find the base case and the inductive step, and you have solved an infinite number of problems in a finite amount of time.

    In the end, I have a feeling that no matter what we do, the problem will not ever get solved. Because changing the minds of people is so difficult. And that’s not just related to plastic, but a lot of things: CO2 emissions, deforestation, depletion of animals (shark fin soup, anyone?)…

    “In the year 9595,
    I’m kinda wondering if man is gonna be alive,
    He’s taken everything this old earth can give,
    And he ain’t put back nothing, oh, oh.”

    (Zager & Evans, In the year 2525: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Uw7phR9ucA )

    • stevegrand says:

      Very good ramble!

      I just went to the supermarket and I changed my behaviour a little bit – paper bags instead of plastic. Whether I’ll keep it up I don’t know – they’re harder to carry up three floors, but I think if we all make tiny personal changes they do add up. The greatest hope we have as a species lies in education, I think. Despite the plastic-filled oceans and all the other stuff we’re possibly more responsible and considerate now than we’ve ever been, because there’s less ignorance than there’s ever been. The problem we have is that we’re more removed from the consequences of our actions than ever before and a lot of stuff happens in our name that we don’t even know about and would be shocked to discover. But it’s changing, gradually.

      The scaremongers are fond of projections: “If present trends continue, awful thing X will happen”. But as long as information is freely available, present trends rarely do continue. We’re just a small part of a complex adaptive system and there are feedback loops galore. But spreading information about these things is part of that feedback process, which makes sure that present trends don’t continue, even though the reasons why are often very subtle. Look at the dire predictions of all-out nuclear warfare and a nuclear winter that we were treated to in the Seventies. It didn’t happen, but in part this must be *because* of those dire predictions. It doesn’t always require big decisions by governments – sometimes a lot of tiny voices can make big changes.

      It would be a great job for a flotilla of robots, you’re right. It’s all recyclable stuff, after all. But it’s a huge area. It took me three days to drive across Texas. It’d be great if the robots could consume the garbage and use it to construct more robots – it’d be a self-limiting process. Except then we’d have a plastic-free ocean that was smothered in now useless robots, of course…

      • Vegard says:

        Just came across this: http://liquidr.com/pacx/

        So they’re building some kind of robot that will run chemical tests and analyse water quality. Seems their commercial goal is to get weather data to make better predictions, though. Just thought it was related.

  2. Terren says:

    Hey Steve,

    I have to admit the first thing I thought of when I saw this post was George Carlin’s take on environmentalism:

    There’s a perverse part of me that is curious to see what kind of new ecosystem will be spawned by The Plastic Sea.

    • stevegrand says:

      I agree with a lot of what Carlin says. But there’s nothing wrong with trying to protect our children, at least. It’s what we evolved to do. That of course raises the question of who “our” children are. Chimpanzees do their best to look after their kids but we’re not exactly helping them and they’re our close kin. Come to that, sea urchins are pretty close kin. But they’ll probably survive the coming extinction just like they survived the others. We primates might not. But it’s not really about survival it’s about pain. We’re making a world that will be unpleasant to live in, for many living things. Millions of sea birds are choking to death on plastic right now. Future humans will have to put up with a lot of crap because of us. Pain is the thing to be avoided, I think. It’s what I want to avoid anyway, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Yeah, the planet will survive and so will a lot of species – the whole of human history will be compressed to a tiny smudge in a few rocks, but we’re causing a lot of future pain we could avoid. That’s a good enough reason for me.

  3. Richard says:

    I’m glad you also made reference to Story 2 since after finishing Story 1, I was just about ready to shout “myth”!

    There are times when I wonder if we will end up completely destroying our environment or at the very least, extinguish our species. The price that all life pays for the unending supply of things we humans dispose of irresponsibly is enormous. It’s time we become compassionate stewards of this planet instead of opportunists. It’s time we grow up.

  4. spleeness says:

    Great articles, thanks for posting them! I’m going to think about this the next time I go foodshopping; will remind me to bring my own bags.

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