100 Million Cellphones


Photo art by Chris Jordan  - cellphones
Photograph by environmental artist Chris Jordan depicting 426,000 cellphones, the number discarded daily in the United States
I can’t even imagine someone throwing a cell phone into the trash (although I have heard there was some very lucrative dumpster diving around the time of the first iPhone release!) but that’s just me. (What other mother do you know who would post a sign by the trash “Recycle or Die”?)

There are lots of issues with this little act: the average cell phone user is urged and enticed to upgrade their phone every year or so resulting in the necessary discard of the old phone. The major service providers make half-hearted attempts to provide envelopes for recycling, but my drawer is full of the family’s used cellphones because I don’t trust where they go. I’ve heard too many horror stories of American electronics waste going to third world countries where little kids are exposed to all kinds of hazardous metals as they take apart the discarded appliances. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating; unfortunately, probably not.

Some more nasty facts: over 300 million printer cartridges are thrown away into landfills each year; over the next three years Americans will discard 130 million cellphones; Americans are 5% of the world population but they generate over 30% of the world’s trash.

Well, here’s the good news. I’ve always had affection for the US Postal Service (except for the junk mail they insist they must put in my P.O. box that I then toss into their paper recycling bin–a battle for another day) and now they have come up with a significant public service. Starting out in nearly a dozen metropolitan areas, the Post Office will now carry free mailer envelopes as part of a new Mail Back program for recycling small electronics and laser and inkjet printer cartridges. And this is recycling we can trust. The company paying for this is Clover Technologies Group, a company totally vetted and dedicated to zero waste to the landfill. In other words, they will retrofit, refurbish and resell whatever they can and totally take apart and recycle or reuse what they cannot sell.

If this works out, they will take the program across the country–imagine the potential impact from the one agency in contact with every home and business in America.

Soupe de Plastique

Philipino maneuvering through a crowded inlet
Philipino maneuvering through a crowded inlet

Imagine yourself independently wealthy. You buy yourself a yacht. You love the open seas. You become passionate about sailing and your life revolves around planning trips to exotic places.

Then something happens that changes your world.

Such is the story of Charles Moore, heir to an oil fortune, now environmental activist and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

After designing his own unique racing yacht, Moore entered a Los Angeles to Hawaii race. It was 1997. Upon sailing home he willfully entered a part of the Pacific Ocean as a shortcut home, an area that is usually avoided by sailors and fishermen: an area of weak winds and weak currents and little fish that is the eye of a circle of currents thousands of miles wide called the North Pacific Gyre.

What he stumbled upon changed his life.

A sea–as far as the eye could see–of plastic debris–yellow Chevron oil bottles, tampon applicators, plastic bags, old fishing lines, shampoo bottles and Japanese traffic cones. He traveled for days through discarded plastics, miles after mile after mile.

I can only imagine his disbelief, his shock. When I first read about his experience, I too was shocked and wrote about it here. The ocean that he sailed because it was endless and pristine, was much like the wilderness that avid backpackers venture into to escape civilization –only to find the its ugliest remnants–trash.

In Moore’s words:

I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.

Not a scientist himself, but with conviction and money, Moore founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in 1999 and built a network of chemists and scientists. He enjoined Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer and leading authority on flotsam, who famously tracked the spill of 80,000 Nike running shoes on their way from China to the US. (the resultant wash-up on beaches throughout the Pacific allowed him to track and identify the behavior of currents).

Since this initial discovery and the funding of the Foundation, Moore has underwritten several trips to the area for further research. In 2001, according to the Marine Pollution Bulletin, they published that there were six pounds of plastic floating in the North Pacific subtropical gyre for every pound of naturally occurring zooplankton.

Most recently, after another exploration and research trip to the region, Moore acknowledges that the results are beyond imagination: the plastic soup he encounters is now–not the size of Texas as was noted in 1997. Not the size of the United States as noted in 2001. Now it is estimated, when one takes into account the “eastern” and “western” patches, to be double the size of the continental US.”

There are those who dispute his figures and Moore acknowledges that it is difficult to document the phenomenon. Satellite imagery is not able to pick up the plastic because it floats slightly below the surface and is largely translucent.

The “soup” is actually two linked areas, either side of the islands of Hawaii, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches. According to a study released by Greenpeace, about one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

Ebbesmeyer, as “flotsam expert” portrays the North Pacific plastic trash cluster vortex as a living entity:

“It moves around like a big animal without a leash.” When that animal comes close to land, as it does at the Hawaiian archipelago, the results are dramatic. “The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic,” he added.

All this plastic breaks down but never goes away. Sunlight breaks the plastic into smaller and smaller bits, all ingested gradually into the food chain. Birds dive for the brightly colored plastic and sea turtles chase plastic bags like jellyfish.

“What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It’s that simple,” said Dr Marcus Eriksen, director of research and education.

This is our petroleum, our drilled and pumped oil, our endless ingenuity, reconfigured into new matter; matter causing serious consequences for our living on the planet.

The annual production of plastic resin in the United States has roughly doubled in the past 20 years, from nearly 60 billion pounds in 1987 to an estimated 120 billion pounds in 2007, according to a study by the American Chemistry Council, which represents the nation’s largest plastic and chemical manufacturers.

So plastic is not going to go away. We can’t even do a massive cleanup operation to stop the damage. But we must start being aware of what we are doing. Remember that lovely video of the floating plastic bag in the movie “American Beauty”? Now picture that bag escaping the little whirlwind it was in as it begins its journey down the storm drain and out to sea.

“Oil is the raw material for most plastics manufacturing; oil was also the source of Moore’s inherited fortune.

“In a way, part of all this is remediation for the consequences of my grandfather’s life,” Moore says. “I guess maybe I need to make amends.”