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Perils of plastic

The alarm is ringing by RICHARD MASON Special to the Democrat-Gazette | July 15, 2018 at 1:55 a.m.

Stephen Hawking, considered to be one of the smartest men who ever lived, made this statement a few years before his death: In 100 years, we will have polluted the earth to the extent that it will be uninhabitable, and we will have to find another planet on which to live.

Dr. Hawking was basically saying the earth will become so toxic that it will be a wasteland of landfills and rafts of plastic that will fill our oceans. In some bodies of water it doesn't have far to go. In the Pacific, there is already a plastic raft of material estimated to be the size of Texas.

A large portion of the world may already be under water from global warming caused by climate change before we have to vacate this planet, as Hawking predicted. Recently, His Holiness Pope Francis spoke out decisively about the threat to billions of people around the world from climate change. The Pope called climate change an international emergency that threatens everyone. (Want more info on climate change? Read the great Voices column on July 9 by Malcolm Cleaveland, professor emeritus of geosciences at the University of Arkansas; his area of expertise is paleoclimatology and climatology.)

Centuries before, Chief Seattle said: "To harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator." I will paraphrase that by saying: Christians don't trash our earth.

I guess my exercise routine has something to do with my current environmental reactions to what I see as an avalanche of pollution that is trashing our earth. The exercise I have developed is a fairly rapid walk leaving my house on Calion Road on the edge of town in El Dorado, and in a few hundred yards I connect with the 167 Bypass. It's about three and a half miles. Brisk walking gives you a chance to look at your surroundings. The bypass is a pretty bland piece of a south Arkansas landscape, but the shoulders are wide and there are no hills, which I like.

As I walk, I see everything that can blow out of the back of a pickup or thrown out a car window. I see things that are not biodegradable--plastic everything, from hundreds of water bottles, to plastic straws.

We often ignore small things such as plastic straws, but here's something to consider when you suck up that Sonic Coke. Every hour 500,000 plastic straws are trashed, and since they are plastic they will be with us for generations. You would think a garbage problem of that magnitude would have some folks up in arms to force straws to be made of paper, and sure enough over a dozen cities have already banned plastic straws.

Seattle, one of the most livable cities in the country, has not only banned plastic straws, but also banned single-use plastic forks, spoons, and knives. It's not the only city trying to control the flood of plastic that threatens to overcome us. According to the number of legislative bills being proposed and nationwide polls, several states are ready to ban plastic straws. The U.K. has already banned them, and Starbucks just announced it will eliminate the use of plastic straws by 2020. That will keep one billion straws a year from going to a landfill. I'm always looking for a good reason to stop at Starbucks.

An estimated 7.5 percent of landfill plastic trash comes from plastic straws. But there are other negatives. Plastic straws can be detrimental to your health. Using a straw contributes to gas, bloating, and tooth cavities. Here's another little problem: smoker's wrinkles. That's right, sucking on a plastic straw for years will do the same thing as puffing on a cigarette--wrinkled lips!

Plastic straws are only the tip of the plastic iceberg when you consider the 300 million tons of plastic products that are made each year, but those numbers don't reflect the actual enormity of the plastic problem. This is the number that is staggering: 50 percent goes into the one-time-use category such as plastic bags. It is estimated each plastic bag is only used for 15 minutes and the vast majority end up in landfills or in our oceans.

Recently a pilot whale beached itself in Thailand and went through an agonizing effort to throw up the plastic bags it had ingested. It died and 80 plastic bags weighing 17 pounds were found in its stomach. The next time you shop and come away with a half-dozen plastic bags of groceries, think of that magnificent whale dying on the beach because it swallowed plastic bags.

I know it's hard to understand the magnitude of the problem, but if you visit a landfill and view the hundreds of tons of non-recyclable plastic and other pieces of trash and then consider the world's billions of people, maybe then you will have a better concept of why Hawking said in 100 years those landfills and other items that degrade our planet will become so numerous that future generations will be forced to live in squalor and earth will become a toxic wasteland.

There is hope for our planet, but it's not coming from Washington. The plastic problem is local and must be solved by local initiatives. Communities across the country have already banned many of the items listed above and even a country, Rwanda, has banned plastic bags and packaging. That was 10 years ago, and the country is doing just fine.

There are hundreds of websites that offer reusable bags and other items that you can buy if you really want to help, and you can insist on either paper straws or no straw when you order a drink. If paper straws aren't available, then just sip the drink. Studies have shown that sipping means the consumer will will drink less of what is usually a sugary beverage--and guess what? Lose weight.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email

Editorial on 07/15/2018

Print Headline: The alarm is ringing Perils of plastic


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