Death by Plastic

Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (Ziphius cavirostris) are known for their extreme diving abilities. Researchers using satellite-linked tags to measure the diving behavior of the species off the Southern California coast have recorded one dive to 9,816 ft (2992 m) in depth, and another lasting 137.5 minutes, “both new mammalian dive records.” The work, carried out by Gregory Scharr and colleagues of the Cascadia Research Collective, was published March 26, 2014 in the open access journal, PLOS ONE.

Phot of Cuvier’s Beaked Whale
Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Image: Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit, Banff, Scotland.

Because of the animal’s preference for deep water, typically far from shore, the living habits of this marvellous creature are poorly understood. Most of the collected knowledge about the species comes from the study of dead specimens. A week ago (March 16), marine researchers in the Philippians learned that a young Cuvier’s Beaked Whale could hold 88 lbs (40 kg) of plastic trash in its stomach before dying of “gastric shock”.

According to an article in the National Geographic, the young 15ft long, 1,100 pound whale was still alive when it washed up on the shore of the Davao Gulf. The people who found it said it looked emaciated and was vomiting blood before it died. The magazine quotes Darrell Blatchley, the marine biologist who performed an autopsy on the body: “Plastic was just bursting out its stomach”. Blatchley describes the contents as being like two densely packed basketballs, but hard as a baseball, some of it calcified from being in the stomach for so long. The trash, 8% of the animal’s total weight, included plastic shopping bags of various sizes, rice sacks, banana bags, and tangles of nylon rope. According to the National Geographic piece, the animal’s “stomach acid, unable to break down the plastic waste, had worn holes through its stomach lining instead.”

Writing about how much plastic trash can fit inside the belly of a whale has reminded me of the email I sent last December to James Quincey, CEO of the Coca-Cola Co. concerning his talk on ‘sustainability’ published on YouTube, August 30, 2018 – see below. The Coca-Cola Company reportedly generates — world wide — about 3 million tons of plastic packaging annually, all of it destined to pollute land, sea, or air, in one form or another. What concerned me about Mr. Quincey’s comments on plastic, was that, rather than talk about alternatives, he went on about how improved ‘recycling’ of plastic waste could ultimately fix the problem of plastic waste pollution.

My email to Mr. Quincey’s was intended to remind him that recycling plastic waste is not a ‘sustainable’ solution to the pollution problem. The email listed the following three reasons why it isn’t:

First, the collection of discarded plastic is driven by local demands for the cleanup of unsightly trash, and it depends on the availability of municipal taxes and/or government subsidies to pay for the work. There are many places, including whole countries, that cannot afford decent garbage disposal, let alone the facilities needed to extract plastic from the stuff.
Second, even in places where the collection of trash is good, there is no profit motive to drive plastic recycling. The cheapest way to make plastic is to use fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal – as the raw material. It’s far more expensive to extract used plastic from garbage and then reprocess it.
Third, even if increased levels of plastic recycling could be achieved, the amount of plastic in the environment would continue to rise. That’s because recycled plastics remain in the environment as potential pollutants. For example, lawn chairs made from recycled plastic bottles eventually return to the trash pile. Recycling merely delays the pollution caused by the recycled stream.

Promoting the idea of recycling to reduce plastic pollution is a useful PR position for a corporation like Coca-Cola to adopt— in the short term. But what, I asked Mr. Quincey, is his company’s actual, sustainable, solution for the long term? I’m expecting a positive reply; something like: plastic is an abomination, a scourge, there’s no choice but to phase it out, we must use glass instead, the quicker we act the better.

I haven’t received any reply from Mr. Quincey yet, but I’ll update this post when I do.

While the whale that died from gastric shock will disintegrate and return harmlessly to the earth, the trash removed from its stomach continues to exist. Conceivably the same trash could some day find its way back into the ocean to once again kill more creatures — assuming there are any creatures left to kill. That’s the problem with plastics. Like the fossil fuels from which they are derived, once let loose into the environment, the damage they cause lasts indefinitely and becomes virtually impossible to control. Perhaps next time Mr. Quincey and his fellow Coca-Cola board members meet to discuss corporate business, they’ll consider more carefully the implications of their product-packaging decisions. To use a business jargon term, the company needs to get out ahead of the curve.

Photo of Coca-Cola Co. Board of Directors
Coca-Cola Board of Directors. James Quincey 7th From left. Image from Coca-Cola Co. website