There is no away to throw to

I took a post-Earth Day getaway trip to the California coast. Something about the ocean—it always seems a good place to get my head unclogged. The fresh air blowing up off the water, full of those great salty ions, is so cleansing.

But these days I know that the cleansing power of the ocean is increasingly imaginary, as the plastic shopping bags and soda bottles we use end up floating through the Pacific in a giant swirling mass variously called the “North Pacific Gyre,” “Garbage Patch” or “Trash Soup.” Estimates rattling around the Internet peg the size at 3.5 million tons and twice the size of Texas. Because it floats and swirls, precise figures are difficult to establish, but since researchers analyze it through water sample collections, they can tell us that the ratio of plastic bits to plankton is 6-1 and climbing exponentially.

Some of the plastics in this floating mass are 50 years old—reminding us that plastic is nonbiodegradable—and while the pieces break apart and get smaller, they remain (often toxic) polymers down to the molecular level. Animals consume this garbage, many die from the toxics or from blocked digestive systems. Albatross parents mistake plastic bottle caps for food and feed them to their babies, with fatal results.

What does any of this have to do with us, Nevadans in a landlocked state, indeed the only state whose waters do not run to the ocean?

At the most basic and direct level, many of us consume ocean-caught fish, and that fish has consumed plastic, so we are putting the trash of a half-century back into our own bodies.

At a more ethereal but equally important level, the ocean gyre is a potent reminder that there is no “away” to which we throw things. We have all seen plastic bags ballooning through the Washoe zephyrs, caught in tree branches, or riding atmospheric thermals into the stratosphere. Our playa-borne thermals carry minerals into the atmosphere to impact biozones all over the planet. Our lightweight plastics get into the ocean through the same breezy currents.

The character Isabelle Steers in the 1961 movie The Misfits called Nevada “The Leave It” state: “Ya got money you want to gamble? Leave it here. You got a wife you want to get ride of? Get rid of her here. Extra atom bomb you don’t need? Blow it up here. Nobody’s gonna mind in the slightest.” Historically and culturally, our state is deeply ingrained in the throw-away mentality of post-WWII America. Indeed, any visit to a historic mining site makes it clear that Nevadans developed that throw-away attitude almost a century before the rest of the country.

Some in our community are working to change this. Last year, the Washoe County Health Department launched the “I Refill” campaign to encourage the use of re-usable water bottles. Prior to the economic meltdown, city of Reno staffers were researching the feasibility of a ban on plastic bags. But we could do better. In Germany a few years ago, the government enacted a tax on waste, so consumers started throwing away packaging at the store. Retailers didn’t want to pay the tax, so they pressured suppliers to stop packaging in plastic, and the manufacturers did. This is the kind of upstream problem-solving we really need.

A plastic bag or bottle may seem convenient but next time you are faced with the choice, remember the immense hassle of removing pea-sized bits from miles of rolling ocean, or plastic molecules from your sushi.