Bird-killing plastic

Water bottles

Image by quinn.anya via Flickr

A consideration of what and how we eat in the modern world should also include thinking about how our foodstuffs are packaged and transported, as well as the unintended consequences that can result.

There’s an area of the Pacific Ocean called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre that has been nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s the diffuse, floating version of a landfill, with miles and miles and miles of our garbage floating in the water and doing damage to marine life, small and large. Out of sight to most human eyes, it has serious environmental consequences, and it’s not going away. As a chapter title in Alan Weisman’s fantastic book, The World Without Us, puts it, “Polymers are forever.”

The immediate consequences are put even more bluntly in the headline of this story from the NPR photography blog, Picture This: “How soda caps are killing birds.” Award-winning photographer Chris Jordan has been capturing images of the remains of birds on Midway Atoll that also show the contents of their stomachs, which are filled with all sorts of plastic including the ubiquitous water/soda bottle cap that the animals mistakenly ingest as food. Like much art, the photos are simultaneously horrifying and strangely beautiful. I encourage you to view some of the photos or watch the trailer for the documentary film that Jordan is developing.

There’s no doubt about it: we Homo sapiens in the modern world are garbage machines. I don’t know how to slow the growth of the human population, now estimated by the UN to be over 7 billion, but there’s no question that our impact on the world around us is enormous and is only going to continue. We’re surrounded by plastic these days, so food packaging is by no means the only contributor to the Great Garbage Patch. Yet among the most distressingly wasteful items may be the “single use” products, such as plastic water bottles and caps, for which there are simple and readily available alternatives.

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