In Living Large, contributing writer Sarah Z. Wexler takes a look at America's longtime obsession with oversizing everything from engagement rings to shopping malls. Drawing on firsthand reports from the likes of the country's largest working landfill in California and the driver's side of a Hummer, Wexler presents a complete portrait of the, yes, growing world of "extreme large." Living Large is available October 26.
There aren't many alternatives for what to do with our mountains of trash. It would cost $45,000 per pound, says Joe, to shoot trash into space. Every day, 108,234 tons of waste is incinerated, pumping potentially hazardous chemicals into the air. "Though they are very much improved from the smokestacks of ten or twenty years ago, incinerating still releases small amounts of lead and mercury," says [Elizabeth] Royte [author of Garbage Land]. "But it doesn't make trash disappear. It does reduce its weight by 75 percent, but you're still left with the ash. Because of the Clean Air Act, the ash goes into landfills and all the toxins that were kept out of the air go into the ground instead."
If that sounds bad, we're doing just as poorly by our oceans, dumping fourteen billion pounds of trash into them worldwide. Some of that is refuse from ships and old fishing gear, but only about 20 percent. The other 80 percent comes from land, mostly lightweight trash like plastic that rolls to the lowest point and floats down rivers until it winds up in the ocean. The strong surface currents of the North Pacific Gyre draw in waste material from North America and Japan, pulling it across the North Pacific Ocean. That's created what scientists call the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating trash island that weighs 3.5 million tons. It was discovered in 1988, though oceanographers think it began forming in the 1950s.
The mass is made up of 80 percent plastic, the final resting spot for about 2.5 percent of all plastic items made since 1950. The Garbage Patch has only expanded since then, floating in the rarely traveled ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii, and is now estimated to be about twice the size of Texas. In this mass, the concentration of plastic is seven times higher than the concentration of plankton, which isn't good news for sea creatures. Even more troublesome is that as the plastic breaks down into smaller floating particles, it begins to resemble plankton, which means that animals like sea turtles, jellyfish, and albatrosses consume it, which may ultimately kill them- not to mention the plas- tics entering the food chain via fish and birds, meaning humans may eventually even consume our own trash.
"What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It's that simple," says Dr. Marcus Eriksen, research director of the U.S.- based Algalita Marine Research Foundation. At this point, winds and currents have trapped so much trash that oceanographers think it would be nearly impossible to even remove the island. "There's nothing we can do about it now except do no more harm," says Eriksen. Chris Parry, the public education program manager for the California Coastal Commission, agrees: "At this point, cleaning it up isn't an option. It's just going to get bigger as our reliance on plastics continues. . . . The longterm solution is to stop producing as much plastic products at home and change our consumption habits," like using less plastic bags, bottles, and packaging in the first place.
From Living Large by Sarah Wexler. Copyright (c) 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.