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Plastic Pollution

The United States produces millions of tons of waste every year. Nine out of every ten tons of plastic waste are not recycled.

So where do those tons of discarded plastic go? Eventually all trashed plastic ends up in our oceans. Then add nurdles. Nurdles are small plastic pellets that are part of the manufacturing process. In 1992, approximately 60 billion pounds of these plastic pellets were being made annually. The American Chemistry Council, that represents the nations’ largest plastic and chemical manufacturers, reports an estimated production of 120 billion pounds in 2007. Production doubled in five years. Nurdles are shipped by trains, trucks, and ships. Some of these tiny pellets escape on the wind and rain, floating down storm drains and rivers to the ocean. There the nurdles join other plastics, such as water bottles, gas and oil cans, and even kayaks on their way to the ocean.

As the plastic floats along in the sun, it becomes brittle and begins to crack into small pieces and particles as fine as dust. Once in the ocean some plastic dust is deposited on our beaches. The remaining plastic moves to any one of five ocean gyres. A gyre is a rotational dead zone in the ocean. All debris flows into these gyres and is trapped there. The debris and the chemicals it brings with it are poisoning the water and causing the ocean temperature to rise, worsening the problem of global warming. Estimates are that the debris covers an area twice the size of Texas and weighs three million tons, mostly plastic.

There is also the problem of choking and starving birds, turtles and other animals who have mistaken the bits of plastic for food or been snared by abandoned fishing nets and other debris. Recent testing shows a ratio of 6 to 1 of plastic to plankton in the water.

The EPA has been studying the problem for more than a decade and we still have no regulations to control it. Keep in mind that there are five gyres in the world.

Charles Moore is a marine researcher at Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach. He has been studying the North Pacific Gyre for 10 years. Moore says, ” The ocean is downhill from everywhere. It’s like a toilet that never flushes.”

New technology is coming that will improve or nearly eliminate the problem of garbage. But it isn’t in the main stream, yet. More testing, permits, and financing needs to happen. Plasco, a company in Ottawa, Canada, uses a plasma torch process to burn waste in a completely controlled environment, with no hazardous emissions. This is called plasma gasification. This process is 2/10ths of one percent away from zero waste. Hydrogen is one of the byproducts of gasification, and could be a future source of power. Plasco has applied to build a facility in California. But permits and building, all takes time.

Now is the time to make recycling a way of life. When we recycle waste plastic, we can create new products, such as carpet, and lumber, without creating more nurdles. We should also stop polluting our natural resources. It is time to reuse what we already have instead of making new nurdles and tossing away reusable material.

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