In Professor Eleanor D’Aponte’s AP558 Global Issues in Design seminar, students experience global environmental, social, and educational issues via selected readings, films, field trips, guest speakers and service to community. Seeing the work of local entrepreneurs and educators within the context of global concerns, the course inspires students to think broadly in their own design work. Students report and reflect on class events via individual journals, as well a series of class blog entries. Graduate student Deandra Musial considers the impacts of garbage and waste plastic as today’s guest blogger.
In 2014, the documentary Inside the Garbage of the World was released to the world with the goal of making people aware of the Great Pacific Trash Island and how we are poisoning ourselves and the environment through our extravagant use of plastics. Streamed on the popular video-sharing website of YouTube, the self filmed documentary was produced by Philippe and Maxine Carillo, two well known documentarians. Featuring interviews with Captain Moore (Algalita Marine Research Institute), Amma Cummins (5 Gyres Institute), Dr. Andrea Neal (Jean-Michael Coustead), and Mary Crowley (Ocean Voyage Institute & Project Kaiser), the film provides direct insight into what exactly is happening with all of our plastic trash and how it is affecting the place that we call home.
With the growth of global population and the rise of industrialization, we are seeing a great increase in temporary and quick solutions to meet the demands of society, many of which are produced with the use of plastics. These plastics, such as soda bottles, plastic bags, sandwich bags, food containers, and utensils to name a few, have become one-use items that are tossed “away” after use. But where exactly is “away” when you have a material that cannot decompose? Starting off as large pieces of plastics, the material will begin to break down further and further into smaller pieces until there are thousands of tiny particles floating throughout the entire ocean. Just because we cannot see the original form of that object, does not mean that it no longer exists. According to the film, over four million tons of plastic are sent into the ocean each year, eighty percent of which comes from the land and the rest from ships or platforms traveling the oceans. While society’s lack of recycling and their tendency to litter plays a large role in this pollution, the greater issue at large is the lie being told to society that “if we just recycle, everything will be okay.” This, in fact, is one of the major issues and causes of the pollution as there are only so many items which can truly be recycled and reused. Other every day plastic items, such as phones, cases, shoes, toys, electronics, clocks, K-cups, travel mugs, clickers, pens, staplers, tooth brushes, floss, etc, are not items which are seen as recyclable. Take a look around and observe the items that are plastic around you currently; where do those items go when they are broken or finished with their intended use?
Many of them are simply tossed into the garbage for convenience rather than attempting to recycle them. All of these items are all cheaply produced in order to meet consumer demand and provide a reasonable purchasing price. This reduces the quality of the product and its ability to work effectively for a lifetime. Take a step back and think about the products which existed within a household a few decades ago and how much time and care was put into that product to ensure it was both beautiful and functional. What happened to good design? When did society begin to develop a lack of ownership and care for the products that they owned? As a designer, I personally believe that we are partially to blame for the poor quality of products which are being produced and the fact that society has lost the need to appreciate the items they own. This directly impacts what is thrown away on a daily basis; as society’s lack of ownership and appreciation for items makes it so that one does not feel bad tossing something into the trash without thinking twice about it. For example, take the design of a coke bottle: what used to be a glass bottle with coca-cola engraved into the side transformed and evolved over the years into a clear plastic bottle, with a red plastic label, and a red plastic top. A bottle which used to be reused and appreciated for its design is now seen as a temporary container which will later be tossed away after its use. While this specific company has taken strides towards reverting back to the glass bottle design and has modernized it with aluminum, this is not the case for every company producing plastic bottles. Many companies are still using plastics as it is the easiest way for the company to produce large quantities of the product at the cheapest rate for the customer. So what can we, as a society, do to enforce the need to reduce the use of plastic bottles? A recent development is the edible water bottle prototyped by Skipping Rocks Lab in London, which allows for the production of an inexpensive, biodegradable “water bottle” nicknamed the orb. This new invention would change the way that humans across the world hydrate without the use of plastics. Although it is still in the experimental phases, this product would eliminate the need to produce plastic bottles and would decrease the amount of plastic litter being dumped into our oceans. By boycotting the purchase of products that have plastics in them, we can soon reduce the need for factories to create mass quantities of plastic items until they are no longer in production.
With a realization of the vast amount of plastic being littered into the oceans, one may wonder what is being done to collect the garbage in the ocean. Inside the Garbage of the World provides insight into what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the largest of five gyres around the world). Gyres are created by moving currents which come together in a central zone and create a soup of plastic garbage. It is referenced as a soup due to the fact that the garbage is hardly ever seen on the surface of the water, but rather appears to be clear blue waters on which touch the horizon. Just beneath the surface of the ocean, there are billions of plastic particles floating around of all different sizes. Over 50% of the plastic waste sinks, the other half is floating around in this soup, breaking up into smaller and smaller particles as it is tossed around the ocean. For this reason, the gyres are not easily cleaned up; one cannot just toss in a net to collect plastic debris floating around.
This causes an issue for all coastal shorelines, as the larger debris pieces are washed ashore and are polluting the once clean shorelines. In the documentary, the team traveled to one of the most isolated islands as far away from civilization as possible, and what they found was astonishing. For miles there were clean beaches and beautiful sands thriving with life, until they turned the corner and came upon a wasteland of trash, debris, and carcasses of animals. Even on the most remote of islands, the impact of plastic pollution is detrimental. Birds are consuming the smaller pieces of plastics and feeding it to their young, mistaking it for a food source. These pieces cannot be digested and begin to accumulate in their intestines until the bird can no longer survive. The documentary stated that one third of the sea bird population dies due to plastic consumption before they reach the adult stages of their life. Dozens of marine life are washed ashore as they too are consuming the plastics by mistaking them for food source. A disturbing moment of the documentary was when the research team received a call about a sperm whale that washed ashore and they were there to do a biopsy. Upon investigation, the team discovered more than 500 pounds of large pieces of plastic in the intestine of the marine animal. This is only one of the many cases of marine life washed ashore due to plastics, and the number is increasing. Dozens of species are disappearing because of human consumption of plastic products us; without even realizing it, we are creating a massacre of animals. To put it in perspective, we are currently experiencing the worst loss of animals since the extinction of dinosaurs over 65 million years ago, if this keeps up we will have a big disaster coming our way; not from the sky, not from the sun, not from the earth, but from ourselves. If we do not put an end to this pollution, we will soon have a world similar to that of the Disney Pixar movie Wall-E. It is our responsibility as inhabitants of this Earth to reverse and stop the pollution of plastics into the oceans, or society will soon begin to feel the detrimental effects.
This catastrophe is not only affecting the animals and beaches, but it too will soon begin to affect human life. As the particles of plastics get smaller and smaller, they will soon be embedded within the blood stream of the marine life and will be circulating throughout their entire body. As we consume the seafood, these plastic particles, which cannot be digested by the acidic human stomach, will soon enter our blood stream and cause a plethora of new illnesses and diseases. The water that we drink will, if not already, contain plastic particles which cannot be removed with a filtration system and will become a part of our daily use of water. Considering that the ocean is one thing that the entire world shares, it is important to not place blame on who is causing the most pollution of the waters, but rather to take charge and stop assuming that it is someone else’s responsibility to initiate beach clean ups and the reduction of plastic usage. If we all decrease the amount of plastics that we purchase and start to use reusable products, we can begin to make to make a difference.