If "Plastics" are the future, as the man said in the 1967 movie "The Graduate" -- and the evidence so far suggests he was right -- where does that leave America's farmlands?
I've wondered about that ever since the Snowy Owls invaded Nebraska a few years ago. A recent visit to a marine-science museum in Oregon and a Wall Street Journal article have renewed my concern.
There wasn't any snow on the ground that January day the Snowy Owl invasion was reported. Usually the large white owls stay close to home in the Arctic and feast on their favorite food, lemmings. Every so often, though, the lemming population crashes, forcing the weaker birds south, and this was a lemming-crash year. Having only seen a Snowy in the wild once before, I joined the search.
What I found was plastic bags -- white plastic bags in shocking numbers, white plastic bags tumbling windblown across farmers' fields, white plastic bags snagged on corn stubble. To somebody scanning the horizon through binoculars looking for white objects, the bags were, to say the least, a disappointment. I could only imagine how bothersome they'd be to those who would later have to work those fields.
Alas, plastic-bag litter in farm fields is but one layer of the plastics garbage heap. An exhibit at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Institute in Newport, Oregon, points to another. The exhibit estimates there is enough plastic garbage floating on the Pacific Ocean to cover the entire state of Texas.
Scientists who study the regurgitations of albatrosses (sound like a fun job?) regularly find the birds have swallowed wads of plastic. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, albatross chicks on Midway Atoll are fed five tons of plastic every year (http://tiny.cc/…). Some die from it.
Americans drink twice as much bottled water today as they did 15 years ago and by 2017, the Wall Street Journal reports, bottled water will outsell soda (http://tiny.cc/…). Yet tap water in the U.S. is cheap and safe -- and it doesn't have a litter problem (http://tiny.cc/…).
Litter is the problem plastics have wrought, and it's not pretty. It would be nice to think that laws requiring recycling, which some farm groups have supported, would solve the problem. So far they've barely made a dent in it. The same is true of laws banning, or taxing, plastic bags.
Please don't mistake all this as the ravings of an anti-technology nut. I like technology, including plastics technology. Like most people I use plastics, though I've cut back on plastic bags and bottled water and am careful to recycle those I use.
It's litter I hate -- and not just because it confuses Snowy Owl watchers and kills Laysan Albatross chicks. Tiny bits of plastic are being found in both wild and farmed fish, raising fears that humans are eating plastic (http://tiny.cc/…). Pieces of plastic in cotton bales coming from farmers' fields are giving cotton mills fits (http://tiny.cc/…). Plastic is among the main reasons litter patrollers have to "adopt" stretches of highway. Litter is a problem for all of us, farmers included.
I finally saw a Snowy Owl that January day. The bird was sitting on a lawn outside the Menards store in Fremont, Nebraska; the memory of the sighting remains vivid to this day. So too, though, does the memory of the fields of plastic.
When -- someday soon, please -- society figures out a solution, I'm guessing farmers will have played a role in reining in the litter.
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