Plastic versus plankton
A take-out meal prepared last weekend by a popular Sonoma Valley restaurant was carried home in a disposable, recyclable brown paper bag. Well and good. But inside the bag, the delectable contents - pasta, chicken and Caesar salad - were separately packaged in plastic containers, the salads in a pair of Styrofoam boxes.
From a carbon footprint perspective, plastic containers create problems, even though they can be and (at least in the Sonoma Valley) frequently are recycled.
But the Styrofoam is another issue altogether.
There is, at one level, the issue of human health. The National Institutes of Health released a report last week adding styrene, which is used to make food containers composed of polystyrene (for which the Dow trade name is Styrofoam), to the growing list of known or suspected carcinogens.
The evidence on Styrofoam isn't conclusive, but the NIH report described the likelihood of cancer causation as "reasonably anticipated."
There is room for scientific disagreement on this point - chemical industry representatives blasted the announcement - but there is no room for disagreement on what happens once discarded polystyrene ends up in the ocean.
In the Texas-sized cesspool of circulating plastic trash called the North Pacific Central Gyre, there is an unimaginable amount of floating plastic, including toothbrushes, lighters, bottles, bottle caps, flip flops, abandoned Barbie dolls, billions of plastic bags and foam fishing floats.
Those things are visible and extraordinary in their variety and volume and they have ended up in the stomachs of untold thousands of marine animals, including a frightening number of the half-million Pacific albatross that nest and breed on Midway Island, 1,200 miles beyond Hawaii.
Images of dead albatross, their decomposed bodies filled with plastic detritus they thought was food, have received widespread distribution. Not so visible is the aggregation of plastic particles, tiny specs that float and are consumed much closer to the bottom of the food chain by tiny fish.
Capt. Charles Moore, Long Beach founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, was one of the first to witness and recognize the portent of the Pacific Gyre. But Moore cast a wider net than most - literally - when he trolled fine filters behind his research boat and then reported that there were six times more plastic fragments by weight in the central Pacific than there were zooplankton in the same water samples. A second Moore study revealed that plastic outweighs plankton by a factor of 2.5 to 1 in the near coastal surface waters of Southern California.
What's this got to do with Sonoma?
Polystyrene is the one plastic known to break down faster - into tiny particles - in water than on land. The polystyrene products most commonly discarded into the environment - and eventually the ocean - are Styrofoam cups and food containers.
On June 6, the Sonoma City Council voted unanimously to support State Senate Bill 568, which would phase out use of Styrofoam food containers in California by 2015.
That was the right thing to do.