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Of course, Hopkins explains, there are caveats. We want these new plant- or insect-based products to work. A plastic spoon that sags when exposed to hot liquid won't attract many buyers even if it will biodegrade. And then there's the question of exactly when the process of biodegradation will start. You don't want it to start before you've finished your bowl of soup.
Hopkins uses the example of the styrofoam flotation supports under a typical Lake Union houseboat. Styrofoam may be a nasty substance, but it lasts. Something less nasty won't be very popular if it starts dissolving while you're still counting on it to keep your home afloat.
A lot of the bad stuff manufactured today certainly floats. The Burke's executive director, archaeologist Julie Stein, says that throughout history, tsunamis have periodically struck one Pacific coast or another, sweeping a variety of artifacts across 5,000 miles of open sea to the opposite shore. Artifacts of wood and metal have washed up on the Washington coast for millennia. The Makah Museum at Neah Bay has shards of copper that were taken from the ruins of the village at Ozette, which was buried by a mudslide in the 15th century. That copper could only have come from the ocean's western shore.
The tsunami that struck Japan last year was the first big one to hit since much of the wood and metal had been replaced by plastic. Most of the stuff that was washed out to sea hundreds of years ago probably sank. But a lot of today's stuff floats. And it isn't broken planks from wrecked junks or loose bits of copper. Most of it is plastic, great mounds and windrows of plastic crap.
Stein sees the archaeologists of the future having to dig down through endless feet of plastic detritus to find anything of interest. But she gives that a little perspective: In a Mediterranean country, one might dig through layers of busted ceramic to find anything of interest. In coastal Washington, one might dig through layers of discarded clam and oyster shells. Those shells basically never disintegrate, either.
The more things change. . .
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