Excerpt from The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman

The World Without Us
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2007,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2008,
    368 pages.

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During his first 1,000-mile crossing of the gyre, Moore calculated half a pound for every 100 square meters of debris on the surface, and arrived at 3 million tons of plastic. His estimate, it turned out, was corroborated by U.S. Navy calculations. It was the first of many staggering figures he would encounter. And it only represented visible plastic: an indeterminate amount of larger fragments get fouled by enough algae and barnacles to sink. In 1998, Moore returned with a trawling device, such as Sir Alistair Hardy had employed to sample krill, and found, incredibly, more plastic by weight than plankton on the ocean's surface.

In fact, it wasn't even close: six times as much.

When he sampled near the mouths of Los Angeles creeks that emptied into the Pacific, the numbers rose by a factor of 100, and kept rising every year. By now he was comparing data with University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson. Like Thompson, what especially shocked him were plastic bags and the ubiquitous little raw plastic pellets. In India alone, 5,000 processing plants were producing plastic bags. Kenya was churning out 4,000 tons of bags a month, with no potential for recycling.

As for the little pellets known as nurdles, 5.5 quadrillion—about 250 billion pounds—were manufactured annually. Not only was Moore finding them everywhere, but he was unmistakably seeing the plastic resin bits trapped inside the transparent bodies of jellyfish and salps, the ocean's most prolific and widely distributed filter-feeders. Like seabirds, they'd mistaken brightly colored pellets for fish eggs, and tan ones for krill. And now God-knows-how-many quadrillion little pieces more, coated in body-scrub chemicals and perfectly bite-sized for the little creatures that bigger creatures eat, were being flushed seaward.

What did this mean for the ocean, the ecosystem, the future? All this plastic had appeared in barely more than 50 years. Would its chemical constituents or additives—for instance, colorants such as metallic copper—concentrate as they ascended the food chain, and alter evolution? Would it last long enough to enter the fossil record? Would geologists millions of years hence find Barbie doll parts embedded in conglomerates formed in seabed depositions? Would they be intact enough to be pieced together like dinosaur bones? Or would they decompose first, expelling hydrocarbons that would seep out of a vast plastic Neptune's graveyard for eons to come, leaving fossilized imprints of Barbie and Ken hardened in stone for eons beyond?

Moore and Thompson began consulting materials experts. Tokyo University geochemist Hideshige Takada, who specialized in EDCs—endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or "gender benders"—had been on a gruesome mission to personally research exactly what evils were leaching from garbage dumps all around Southeast Asia. Now he was examining plastic pulled from the Sea of Japan and Tokyo Bay. He reported that in the sea, nurdles and other plastic fragments acted both as magnets and as sponges for resilient poisons like DDT and PCBs.

The use of aggressively toxic polychlorinated biphenyls—PCBs—to make plastics more pliable had been banned since 1970; among other hazards, PCBs were known to promote hormonal havoc such as hermaphroditic fish and polar bears. Like time-release capsules, pre-1970 plastic flotsam will gradually leak PCBs into the ocean for centuries. But, as Takada also discovered, free-floating toxins from all kinds of sources—copy paper, automobile grease, coolant fluids, old fluorescent tubes, and infamous discharges by General Electric and Monsanto plants directly into streams and rivers—readily stick to the surfaces of free-floating plastic.

One study directly correlated ingested plastics with PCBs in the fat tissue of puffins. The astonishing part was the amount. Takada and his colleagues found that plastic pellets that the birds ate concentrate poisons to levels as high as 1 million times their normal occurrence in seawater.

Copyright © 2007 by Alan Weisman. All rights reserved.

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