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  Geotimes - March 2008 - Geologic Column
GEOLOGIC COLUMN

Trash Talking
Fred Schwab

Fred Schwab
Claudia Schwab

Searching for a gift with which to spoil my “green” grandchildren last holiday season, I found an intriguing middle-school-level book titled, Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion. Author Loree Griffin Burns describes the research of oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who monitors the fate of debris set adrift on the world’s oceans. Using floating objects accidentally spilled from container ships and then later washed ashore in various locations — including 80,000 Nike sneakers, 34,000 hockey gloves, 29,000 bathtub toys, and 5 million LEGO pieces — as Geotimes described in September 2007, Ebbesmeyer was able to trace the course, velocity and variability of major ocean currents. This book got me thinking about trash — how much we produce and just where it all goes.

Ebbesmeyer’s study reveals just a few of the problems with trash. There are even greater problems, however. Much of the material drifting about oceans consists of plastic fishing nets and bottles. Three-quarters of ocean trash is from inland sources, dumped unceremoniously into oceans by rivers. While some plastic is ingested by organisms (which can be deadly), most eventually piles up in vast oceanic “garbage patches” formed where major current systems converge. The Eastern (Pacific) Garbage Patch alone contains an estimated 3 million tons of trash.

Our trash will certainly outlast us, and some may even outlast our species. Styrofoam lasts more than a million years, plastic jugs last about a million years and aluminum cans last 200 to 500 years. The sheet of paper on which this column is written survives only a month or two after being discarded. The paper diapers I changed for my now 40-year-old daughter when she was an infant will be around another five centuries. Shockingly, each infant goes through between 8,000 and 10,000 “disposable” diapers until they are toilet-trained.

Plastic bags last 500 to 1,000 years in landfills. Plastic water bottles — a recent fad — last about 1,000 years. In 2007, Americans bought about 215 billion plastic beverage containers, including 30 billion single-serving bottles of water. We throw out some 60 million water bottles alone per day in the United States. And, as most plastic water bottles are made of polyethylene terephtalate (PET), the production of which consumes oil, we waste about 1.5 million barrels of crude oil each year on these water bottles.

In those disposable water bottles, we are drinking 9 billion gallons of bottled water annually. Tap water costs a fraction of one cent for a 12-ounce serving. A 12-ounce bottle of water sells for at least a buck (at 128 ounces to a gallon, gasoline is much cheaper). A.D. Brunhart, the general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, points out that one dollar of their tap water fills more than 2,000 20-ounce plastic bottles. And recent studies have shown that tap water wins most taste tests versus bottled water. Its quality invariably meets or exceeds Environmental Protection Agency standards. Plus, you have to consider the wasted energy all around: To refill a glass of water, you walk to the sink. Bottled water involves driving to the market, waiting in the checkout line and returning home to enjoy your water. There are also health consequences. Bottled water is seldom fluoridated. The Centers for Disease Control attributes increased tooth decay in young children to increased consumption of unfluoridated bottled water.

Each U.S. citizen generates more than half a ton of trash annually (half the weight of a Ford Focus). Our 5 percent of the world’s population generates 40 percent of global trash. A new book titled Trash, edited by John Knetchtel, has a series of essays that describes trash as eternal art and the product of the conflict between nature and culture. A piece by Heather Rogers (“Message in a Bottle”) documents the history of disposable cans and bottles, first used 50 years ago. Replacing refillable containers with disposables led to the revolution in packaging and marketing. Single-use wrappers, boxes, cans and bottles now constitute the largest category of non-soluble waste, and fill one-third of all landfill space. Rogers shows how the packaging and beverage industries cleverly reshaped public perception by underwriting the Keep America Beautiful campaign. It seductively shifted the blame for the avalanche of trash to thoughtless individual litterers.

Our culture is partly defined by what and how much we trash. Fifty-eight percent of Americans aged 55 to 64 recycle, compared with 39 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds. One in four people younger than 34 believe environmentally sensitive efforts (recycling and buying “green” products) are futile. Still, only around 50 percent of us vote in presidential elections. We’re better recyclers than voters. But that’s not saying much.


Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail: schwabf@wlu.edu

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