Thursday, June 21, 2007
I love riding along the canals. I enjoy the water birds, the fishermen, the trees along the edge. When you mention "canals" to most people here they talk about how dirty they are, about the trash in them, and wonder why people dump dead animals in them. The fact is that the not all the canals in the countryside are dirty...just the ones with a lot of people around them. Odd, that. I was reading the news online the other day and found quite a lot of coverage of the west Pacific Gyre. What is that? The west Pacific Gyre is an area in the western Pacific where the ocean currents move in a circle and there is little wind. In the days of sailing vessels, they called them the "doldrums" and the captains avoided these areas for fear of being becalmed. Not long ago a sailor on his way back to California to Hawaii decided to cut through the Gyre and discovered that the area had been collecting floating trash and plastic in its pool. He's gone back to check again and found that the area of the trash is now twice the size of Texas. If you do a Google news search you can read all about the Gyre...and the five others in the world's oceans. Pretty scary reading.
Trash is a problem everywhere. We make jokes that the plastic bag is Egypt's national bird because there are so many of them blowing across the desert. The Giza dump is just over the hill and when the wind is blowing the right way there are literally hundreds and thousands of inflated plastic bags blowing in battalions across the desert. What good does it do to collect them, dump them and let them blow across the landscape again? They hang up in trees, against fences and then blow into canals. The ones on the fences can be collected yet again and carted back to the dump or sold to the recycling plant to make garden chairs.
But one of the questions that needs asking is whether these plastic things ever really go away. The research being done in the Gyre suggests that plastic never goes away. They've found microscopic shreds of plastic floating in the sea where sea birds fish for plankton and krill. The baby albatross on Midway Island are having a very tough time on a diet that sometimes is more than half plastic and many of them are dying from starvation. The fish that feed on the plastic/plankton mix end up in our food chain, maybe in our restaurants or tuna sandwiches. Many of the components of plastic might leach chemicals into the fish and birds, mimicking hormones and causing chaos. Ugly stuff, plastic.
I used to be bothered by seeing dead animals in canals until I learned how it actually made some sense. The ground water in the Nile Valley is so high that there isn't room underground to bury a large animal without it just soaking in water. If it soaks in the water a meter or so underground, it releases so many nutrients that it can poison the plants all around. It is next to impossible for most farmers to be able to move a dead water buffalo or donkey or cow up into the desert to bury and there are legal problems as well. The antiquities authorities don't like people digging holes whether it is to look for something or to bury something. That more or less leaves the canals which are full of fish, crayfish, water birds and wild dogs. These creatures can strip a carcass to bone within 2 weeks. When you think about decomposition, think about what is decomposing and what it is decomposing to. Animals are made up of the same elements as the soil. They go back to their components. Plastics are made up of polymers created from oil products. If and when they break down or decompose are they ever going to be natural? I don't think so.
copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani