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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Chapter 9: Polymers are Forever

The port of Plymouth in southwestern England is no longer listed among the scenic towns of the British Isles, although prior to World War II it would have qualified. During six nights of March and April 1941, Nazi bombs destroyed 75,000 buildings in what is remembered as the Plymouth Blitz. When the annihilated city center was rebuilt, a modern concrete grid was superimposed on Plymouth's crooked cobbled lanes, burying its medieval past in memory.

But the main history of Plymouth lies at its edge, in the natural harbor formed at the confluence of two rivers, the Plym and the Tamar, where they join the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. This is the Plymouth from which the Pilgrims departed; they named their American landfall across the sea in its honor. All three of Captain Cook's Pacific expeditions began here, as did Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe. And, on December 27, 1831, H.M.S. Beagle set sail from Plymouth Harbor, with 22-year-old Charles Darwin aboard.

University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson spends a lot of time pacing Plymouth's historic edge. He especially goes in winter, when the beaches along the harbor's estuaries are empty—a tall man in jeans, boots, blue windbreaker, and zippered fleece sweater, his bald pate hatless, his long fingers gloveless as he bends to probe the sand. Thompson's doctoral study was on slimy stuff that mollusks such as limpets and winkles like to eat: diatoms, cyanobacteria, algae, and tiny plants that cling to seaweed. What he's now known for, however, has less to do with marine life than with the growing presence of things in the ocean that have never been alive at all.

Although he didn't realize it at the time, what has dominated his life's work began when he was still an undergraduate in the 1980s, spending autumn weekends organizing the Liverpool contingent of Great Britain's national beach cleanup. In his final year, he had 170 teammates amassing metric tons of rubbish along 85 miles of shoreline. Apart from items that apparently had dropped from boats, such as Greek salt boxes and Italian oil cruets, from the labels he could see that most of the debris was blowing east from Ireland. In turn, Sweden's shores were the receptacles for trash from England. Any packaging that trapped enough air to protrude from the water seemed to obey the wind currents, which in these latitudes are easterly.

Smaller, lower-profile fragments, however, were apparently controlled by currents in the water. Each year, as he compiled the team's annual reports, Thompson noticed more and more garbage that was smaller and smaller amid the usual bottles and automobile tires. He and another student began collecting sand samples along beach strand lines. They sieved the tiniest particles of whatever appeared unnatural, and tried to identify them under a microscope. This proved tricky: their subjects were usually too small to allow them to pinpoint the bottles, toys, or appliances from which they sprang.

He continued working the annual cleanup during graduate studies at Newcastle. Once he completed his Ph.D. and began teaching at Plymouth, his department acquired a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer, a device that passes a microbeam through a substance, then compares its infrared spectrum to a database of known material. Now he could know what he was looking at, which only deepened his concern.

"Any idea what these are?" Thompson is guiding a visitor along the shore of the Plym River estuary, near where it joins the sea. With a full moonrise just a few hours off, the tide is out nearly 200 meters, exposing a sandy flat scattered with bladderwrack and cockle shells. A breeze skims the tidal pools, shivering rows of reflected hillside housing projects. Thompson bends over the strand line of detritus left by the forward edge of waves lapping the shore, looking for anything recognizable: hunks of nylon rope, syringes, topless plastic food containers, half a ship's float, pebbled remains of polystyrene packaging, and a rainbow of assorted bottle caps. Most plentiful of all are multicolored plastic shafts of cotton ear swabs. But there are also the odd little uniform shapes he challenges people to identify. Amid twigs and seaweed fibers in his fistful of sand are a couple of dozen blue and green plastic cylinders about two millimeters high.

Copyright © 2007 by Alan Weisman. All rights reserved.

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