Tag Archives: plastic

The specter of ocean garbage

9 Sep

On a spring afternoon walk earlier this year, I obsessively took pictures of New York harbor garbage. A buildup of plastic bottles, crates, driftwood and furniture fragments littered the rocks along our coastal walkway– a strange jumble of junk.

May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn

May 2009 photos of NY harbor garbage in Brooklyn

But my local trash doesn’t come close to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch– our global oceanic trash dump– where swirling currents collect garbage and have created an oceanic desert. I can’t even fathom a clump of refuse the size of Texas.

How did we get to this point? A few plastic bottles here? A few cheap plastic items there? In August, researchers took a closer look at the Patch to see our garbage’s impact on the ocean environment.

First off, they found even more garbage than they expected, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s pretty shocking — it’s unusual to find exactly what you’re looking for,” said Miriam Goldstein, who led fellow researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego on the three-week voyage.

Plastics in the ocean are (at least) a three-pronged problem from what I can tell:

  • Wildlife get tangled in the junk or choke on it.
  • The plastics break down into smaller pieces that interfere with the life cycles of smaller organisms.
  • Then there’s the unknown of how much these plastics break down into their essential chemicals. As organisms are living in this water, how much do these chemicals build up?

I’m haunted by that floating Texas in the Pacific, the largest “landfill” in the world. Want to be even more depressed? There might be another one at least as large and just as nasty in the Southern Hemisphere.

P.S. Thanks, Suzanne, for the story tip.

polymer science meets art and a high school mea culpa

25 Feb

photo by Kevin Sprague

My most recent story (my first for Scientific American) combined all the elements of what I love about my work– the chance to meet interesting people, learn and experience new things, and allow my eclectic interests to co-mingle, at least for a little while. In other words, this former chamber musician got to flex my chemistry muscles, learn about carbon fiber stringed instruments and even do a little firsthand reporting at a chamber music concert.

Synergy is powerful. I happened to call Louie Leguia just a few days before a concert on the Upper West Side. The instruments are fascinating– oddly light, slick, and yes, plastic, though that word makes them sound cheap in a way that these instruments are not. Their sound– at least in the hands of pros– is both rich and expansive. His idea came from his hobby, and I had the good fortune to get to combine my work with an opportunity to feed my lifelong love of music.

And for an hour or so during the concert, my mind drifted back to playing piano (and flute) in chamber music groups while I was in high school. I lacked the patience to memorize music and solo performance fried my teenage nerves, though I did it anyway. But chamber music was a pleasure– less exposed, collaborative, and community-building. The cellist I played with most often was a childhood friend from my neighborhood, Iris, a far better cellist than I was either pianist or flutist. Last I knew, she’d gone to Eastman School of Music, but I lost track of her after high school graduation.

But, I wish Iris had a carbon fiber cello in 1992, when we both played at our high school graduation. We’d each auditioned for the privilege of playing at the ceremony in the O’Connell Center, the acoustic death trap that mostly serves as the  basketball arena at the University of Florida. Somehow, after playing my flute solo, I managed to knock over her cello, which gave a hollow wooden gasp after it fell the 18 inches to the floor, fortunately unharmed, echoed by the collective gasp of the friends and family looking on.

I covered my embarrassment in the moment, but I’m still mortified by my klutziness. So, Iris, wherever you are, here’s another apology, nearly 17 years later. Writing about sturdy cellos, I couldn’t help but think of you.