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Plastic never dies

At a recent dinner party, our friend Leandro mentioned an amusing phenomenon. Since 1997, a stretch of coast in Cornwall, England, has been awash with octopus, dragons, sea weed, miniature flippers, and plastic daisies…. the contents of a shipping container washed overboard. The LEGO even has its own Facebook page. But, whimsical as this is, it illustrates a much bigger issue.

It’s estimated that more than 2,500 shipping containers are lost overboard every year. There’s no central register, and these containers carry everything from toys to computers to chemicals. And what goes into the sea rarely comes out again.

Plastics that go into the ocean are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces until they are microparticles. These don’t evaporate, but the ocean gyres carry them in patterns, meaning that certain areas of the ocean have higher concentrations of these microplastics. For a dramatization of these currents, visit the NASA site. Although they are referred to as “patches,” these are not “islands” of plastic that could conceivably be contained by booms and removed; rather the particles are contained throughout the water column. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is two areas of spinning debris off the coasts of the U.S. and Japan. The microplastics are joined by larger items like shoes and fishing gear. About 70% of the debris ends up on the ocean floor, where it is bound to affect the ecosystem there. Eighty per cent of the debris in these patches comes from North America and Asia. The rest comes from boats, offshore oil rigs, and shipping containers. Discarded fishing nets amount to 705,000 tons of debris every year. We’ve all seen the images of sea turtles and whales maimed by pieces of net rope or hermit crabs that have incorporated plastic into their shells. Sea birds can mistake plastic pellets for food and unwittingly starve their young. Sea turtles eat plastic bags, thinking they are their favourite jellyfish.

One square kilometer of the Great Pacific Plastic Patch can contain up to 750,000 pieces of plastic and it is slowly being absorbed into the food chain. One scientist has speculated that in the future, when our oceans have receded and their floors have become rock formations, there will be pockets of plastic, like the fossils we see preserved in the metamorphic rock that we find on our lakeshores.

Twenty million tonnes of plastic goes into the ocean every year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. What’s the answer? These days everything from bags for dog poop to water bottles are made from “biodegradable” plastic. We seek it out, believing it is the most environmentally neutral form of our favourite substance. People think that “biodegradable” will disappear, so they are less concerned about littering, says researcher Peter Kershaw. In fact, we need to be careful about how we dispose of biodegradable materials. For example, biodegradable plastics don’t degrade as fast in the ocean because they need high temperatures (above 50C) and industrial composters to break down. There is less UV light in the ocean and less oxygen, which also contribute to biodegradation. In the ocean, it takes two or three years, and even then, biodegradable plastic breaks down into microplastics. Incidentally, even on land, you can’t mix biodegradable and recyclable plastics because the two have different properties and must be processed in different ways.

The Pacific Ocean garbage patches are the best know, but satellites have revealed another patch in the polar Berents Sea. Former Toronto mayor David Miller, now President and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, says there are at least three times more microplastics in the Arctic than in other oceans because the ice traps them.

Every year the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup organizes community work parties to remove garbage from beaches and shorelines around the country. The principal of a school in Nunavut said his pupils remove between 1,000 and 2,000 kilos of rubbish every year. Everything from ATVs and snowmobiles to whale carcasses and plastic bags, discarded fishing nets and camping gear. Inuit children are taught “Avatittinnik kamatsiarniq” (“environmental stewardship”) as part of Inuit quajimatuqangiit or knowledge and participating in the clean-up is part of that.

Elsewhere in Canada, a project at the University of Waterloo has received federal funding to research currents in the Great Lakes. We know broadly how the water flows: from Superior and Michigan, which are at the highest elevation, through Huron to Erie and then over Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario and then along the St Lawrence to the Atlantic Ocean. But we need to know where aggregations of microplastics will accumulate in our main source of fresh water.

Incidentally, LEGO has been incorporated into the seascape of Cornwall, but it has also moved into the world of art and politics. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei asked to buy the plastic bricks in bulk for a new work. The Danish company refused because it does not “approve the use of LEGO for political works.” Ai Weiwei has used LEGO for his work before, but LEGO has never supplied its product for anything it considers “political,” also declining to supply bricks for a recent project to construct portraits of female US Supreme Court justices. Now, Ai has taken his LEGO quest global: Art galleries around the world are acting as collection points for discarded bricks. In Toronto, a BMW with a sunroof is parked at the corner of Dundas and McCaul streets, outside the Art Gallery of Ontario. People are invited to toss their LEGO through the sunroof of the car in good weather. In bad weather, there are collection bins in the foyer of the gallery. (As long as the bricks stay in the bins or the car and not on the floor. Anyone who has spent time in a house with eight year olds will know the exquisite pain of stepping on a LEGO brick in bare feet. LEGO France has come up with a pair of slippers to guard against such accidents but there are only 1,500 pairs available. Click here for details....

New York artist Nathan Sawaya, whose work is pictured above, also uses LEGO to create his amazing sculptures. His exhibition, The Art of the Brick, consisted of haunting figures, constructed entirely of the familiar, knobby bricks.

LEGO plastic, like art itself, is timeless.....

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