Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oceans: Oil and Plastic

It’s Day 50 of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. As days and weeks pass and more and more oil gushes into the water, people are more aware and more concerned about what has happened already and about the long-term effects of this on the gulf ecosystem. Humankind’s failure to care for creation as God intended us to do hits us forcefully as the effects become more obvious. We knew, of course, that if the oil kept gushing it would eventually pollute coastal waters and beaches; we knew that all sorts of wildlife would be endangered. But so often we don’t really believe something like this, aren’t really concerned about it, until we can actually see it unfold.

Images like this AP video of Gulf coast birds in the oil make the situation very real to us. 

As we think about how to respond to these heartbreaking images, it might be helpful to remember that petroleum is the raw material of plastics. As the oil seems to be everywhere in certain areas of the Gulf, plastics are everywhere in our world.  Right now, my hands are touching a plastic keyboard as I sit in a chair that’s upholstered with a synthetic fabric made from petroleum. If part of my response to the disaster in the Gulf is to lessen my demand for petroleum, I’ll need to reduce my use of plastic.

Plastic’s origin in petroleum isn’t its only connection to our most critical present concern, however. The way plastic is polluting the ocean has some parallels to the way the oil from BP’s broken well is polluting the Gulf.
  •        What we see of the oil spill on the surface of the water hides what may be the worst of the disaster, as some underwater cameras have shown us.  As marine animals swim through the oil, they ingest the polluted water, bits of tar, and other creatures that have been in contact with the oil. The worst of the plastic is also not readily visible. The big, visible chunks of plastic are both easy and unpleasant to see in the ocean, but the smaller nearly invisible bits permeate sections of the ocean and are ingested by marine animals and birds, thus entering the food chain.
  •          The long-term effects of both the oil in the Gulf (and the dispersants that have been thrown into the mix) and of the plastic particles in the ocean are unknown.
  •          People seem to find it hard to be very concerned about either offshore drilling or the plastic in the oceans   until images appear of birds dying, until it’s too late in many ways.
Some of the worst plastic for the oceans (because of the way it breaks down) is that found in plastic cutlery, including those white plastic spoons many parishes set out at coffee hour, and the forks and spoons we set out with disposable plates and cups at parish picnics and potlucks. 

One simple, concrete action we can take is to drastically reduce our use of single-use plastic, those things that are made to be used once and thrown away (wherever “away” might be).  For times when someone else has made the decision about utensils and nothing but disposable plastic is offered, some people carry their own utensils along. If it seems a bit much to carry your own knife, fork, and spoon with you, a spork (which combines all three in a single utensil) can be useful. Using something like this can not only avoid the use of a couple of single-use plastic utensils, but when people ask about the spork it’s a good opportunity to talk about our overuse of plastics and of petroleum in general. A simple way to show a congregation’s commitment to creation care is to avoid the use of disposable cups, plates, and utensils at parish functions.

Two events in recent days – one in my own backyard and one in Antarctica -- have reminded me of the importance of addressing our use of plastics as part of being intentional about environmental stewardship.  Recently I bought four bags of garden soil to help fill in some raised vegetable beds. (They will be filled further later in the summer with my own compost.) As I spread the soil over the beds, I started to see a familiar blue color in the soil – plastic bits! I picked up some of the bigger pieces for a photo:

Meanwhile, I saw this article about plastics – including fishing buoys and a plastic cup -- found in the seas around Antarctica.  The photo with the article shows a familiar sight, those same little bits of plastic that we see along the edges of lakes in Nebraska, on ocean beaches, or in garden soil from the nursery. Is this what God intended us to do with the gift of this beautiful planet?
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For more information about plastics in the ocean and ways we can take better care of the ocean and its creatures, search the web. Two places to begin are the Plastic Pollution Coalition website and the 5Gyres website.

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