Students tackle subject of oceanic pollution

South Puget Sound Community College professor Garnest Turner gave his students a simple assignment: spend 10 minutes looking around their neighborhood, a public park, or even the SPSCC campus to find and pick up as much plastic trash as they can.

April 15, Turner’s students brought in their homework. Turner laid a blue tarp out on the floor, and his students placed their plastic on it.

One of the students, Alex Watkins, said, “I feel everyone, not only at the Community College but around the world, should take 10 minutes out of their day to help pick up trash and garbage and see how the environment improves.”

Student Selena Watte said “Every piece of plastic and trash affects the world no matter how big it is.”

“The first element, of course, is to make people aware that there is a problem,” said Turner.

The assignment was done in conjunction with an assigned reading: an article by Susan Casey about the island-sized masses of plastic in the ocean, titled “Our Oceans Are Turning into Plastic… Are We?

The article started with the 1997 story of how Captain Charles Moore discovered what scientists now refer to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” 800 miles north of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

“Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents,” wrote Casey.

The plastic is breaking down into microscopic pieces which are eaten by fish and other sea creatures, Casey wrote. The plastic is thereby working its way up the food chain, and that is just the beginning, according to the article.

Casey catalogued the complex and problematic nature of plastic in the environment.

According to Casey’s article, college campuses are starting to embrace plastic containers made out of corn-based plastics, and disposable utensils made of potato-based plastics.

Professor Turner said he sees hope in environmentally friendly plastics. “If we re-engineer our plastics production, we would do the planet a big favor,” he said.

The article also discussed an architect and green designer, William McDonough, who is currently working with the Chinese government to build seven cities using “the building materials of the future,” including a fabric that is safe enough to eat and a new, nontoxic polystyrene.

For now, much of the old, petroleum-based plastics manufacturing is still dominant in the marketplace. And, it is still cheaper to produce new plastic than recycle old plastic.

Turner’s Analytical Reading class must now turn from the oceanic garbage patches to their next assignment: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

“It’s about a different kind of pollution — the pollution of spirit that illegal wealth brings with it, and the pollution of a society that worships money above all else,” said Turner.