Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Island of Plastic Junk
distributed 5/19/17 - ©2017

The photograph in Wednesday's newspaper was bigger than the actual report from the Associated Press, so it was hard to miss. The picture showed an ocean beach, with junk piled everywhere. Bright yellow, red and green plastic objects stand out amidst a horrifying array of ropes, nets, buckets, boards, and other crud.

The real shock came in making sense of that picture in light of the sub-headline: "On an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean, researchers say the density of garbage they found is the highest recorded anywhere."

Something is definitely wrong with this picture. What we'd expect to be a pristine ocean beach has far more junk than you'd find in an urban harbor.

I have not been able to shake that image. The graphic realization that we've heavily polluted even the most isolated parts of the planet nags at me. My thoughts for the last couple of days keep coming back to a core principle of my eco-justice theology, one with implications far broader than practical matters of waste management.

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The researchers in this study spent 14 weeks in 2015 on Henderson Island, way out in the South Pacific Ocean. The small island is part of the Pitcairn Islands, about halfway between New Zealand and Chile. (On Google Earth, search for "24.4S 128.3W".) To say that it is "very remote" is an understatement. There are "no major terrestrially based industrial facilities or human habitations within 5,000 km" (3,100 miles). (The 4-page research report was published Tuesday, and is available on-line.)

The vast stretch of ocean to the east of Henderson Island has a permanent set of ocean currents known as the South Pacific Gyre, pulling the surface waters in a giant counter-clockwise loop. This gyre, like the ones in other oceans, gathers up floating trash and holds it inside the loop.

Henderson Island, sitting on the edge of the gyre, has trash washing up on the beach every day, and some of it washes back out on later tides. The study estimates that a minimum of 3,570 debris items were deposited daily on the island's north beach. Many of those items are very small -- down to 2 mm fragments of stuff -- but cumulatively, it adds up to a lot of trash. The two studied beaches have at least "37.7 million pieces of plastic debris weighing 17.6 tons." That does not include the multitudes of really tiny pieces, or the larger debris piled up along the cliff lines.

The volume of trash on the island, however astonishing, isn't the only point of the study. The island acts as a collector for the ocean gyre, allowing some insights into the almost impossible to measure amount of trash circulating in the currents. Drawing on some historical data, the authors say that debris on Henderson Island has increased by 6.6-79.9% per year. (That's quite a range!) They then say that the "increase in debris on this isolated island therefore mirrors the long-term accumulation and the increased abundance of debris in our oceans." (15 months ago, I wrote about the prediction that by 2050, the world's oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish.)

As we've heard in reports about other ocean gyres, there's an enormous impact from this trash on wildlife. The report says that, globally, the number of species known to interact negatively with marine debris has increased 49% in less than 20 years, with more than 55% of the world's seabird species, including two species from Henderson Island, currently at risk.

The Henderson Island study is carefully done, with impeccable details. But the authors of the study are very intentional about putting this information into a larger context. They open and close their published report with analysis of the global production of plastic. The first paragraph says:

Since the beginning of its mass manufacture in the 1950s, the annual production of plastic has increased from 1.7 million tons in 1954 to 311 million tons in 2014. Because plastic is very durable and most is not recycled, accidentally or intentionally littered items eventually enter our waterways. ... This proliferation of debris in our oceans has led to the recognition of plastic pollution as a major global environmental issue.

The next-to-last sentence observes, "The 17.6 tons of anthropogenic debris estimated to be present on Henderson Island account for only 1.98 seconds' worth of the annual global production of plastic." So it isn't just Henderson Island. There's a lot more plastic out there.

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I don't want to get caught in the details of Henderson Island's pollution. That pulls us into a "how do we fix it" mindset of trash collection. Rather, I see Henderson Island as a powerful witness to a theological truth.

For a long time, I've named four theological affirmations that ground the work of Eco-Justice Ministries. The fourth one -- and probably the hardest one for our culture to accept -- acknowledges that "the world is limited, and we find abundance within those limits." There are limits to what the world can provide for humanity, and what sort of waste the world can absorb, and humanity has passed those limits.

The proliferation of plastic in the ocean proves the point. Earth's natural processes have no way to break down or re-process plastic. There are no creatures that have evolved to eat plastic. There are no microbes that can deal with the huge volume and variety of plastic and turn it back into something natural and benign.

God's creation is designed so that there is no waste. Everything in nature grows from something else, and becomes food for others when it decays. Everything, some way, fits into the cycles of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

But plastic is waste. It does not break down. It does not feed creatures with either energy or nutrients. It just accumulates. And that waste -- in tiny pieces or larger ones -- is toxic. Animals that eat plastic pieces die of starvation when their stomachs are clogged with what cannot be digested. Whales and turtles and gulls are some of the animals that die when they get tangled up in plastic waste.

There is a limit to how much of our waste the world can absorb. That's true with natural waste like the sewage from cities, or garbage that is potentially biodegradable. Too much of it overwhelms natural processes. But with plastic, and other new compounds, there are no natural processes to absorb our waste.

Henderson Island shows us the absolute fallacy that is at the center of our industrial society. We are producing more and more stuff -- hundreds of millions of tons of plastic per year -- and it will not go away. We are poisoning our planet, and torturing our other-than-human neighbors with our junk. We are denying the foundational truth of this planet's ecology: there is a limit to how much of our waste the world can absorb.

If we have any hope of living in a just and sustainable world, we need to get back in right relationship with God's creation. We need to stop producing things that cannot be part of the cycles of life. We need to turn away from a fixation on purely economic measurements, and a lusting after short-term convenience. We need to re-claim an understanding of our place and purpose in creation that recognizes limits, and celebrates the web of life.

Henderson Island is the horrifying example that shows us the theological truth of a world with very real limits. May we find a way to live within those limits, and may we do so very soon.

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A "meme" floating around the Internet shows a plastic spoon, with these words: "It's pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it, and bring it home is considered to be less effort than what it takes to just wash the spoon when you're done with it."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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