It was an accident. I'm sure she didn't know what she was doing would endanger wildlife miles offshore. Yet our innocent acts have far reaching impacts. Let me explain.
The other day I watched a little girl holding a helium balloon while walking with her grandmother around the lake close to where I live. The balloon was that shiny silver type you see used for special occasions--like birthdays and Valentine's Day. The girl must have been no older than five. I watched as the balloon slowly escaped from her careless grip, up above the flight path of the ducks and pelicans, and even higher still, above the tallest building. In a few seconds it went from being a tiny fleck of silver to nothing--it was gone from sight completely.
The girl was surprisingly calm. Her grandmother muttered something in a soothing tone, and after watching with their heads tilted back for any sign it might return, they quietly continued walking together along the water's edge. I watched a little longer, thinking about the ducks dipping their heads below the water, their mouths open. When balloons descend, it's often into the ocean. There, sea life is likely to mistake the shriveled balloon for food, which, unlike organic material, will line their stomachs, and fill them till they die.
Why am I writing about this? Because there's a big difference between how "nature" makes things and how humans do it. Just take a stroll by a river or lake and you'll see what I mean. Litter is what remains of products that we designed with not a lot of foresight.
As inorganic trash accumulates in a body of water, or a fish, or seal, the inert material doesn't create value for the microorganisms in its environment. If enough trash accumulates there, what's alive in that environment dies. So, how do we make conditions conducive to life?
We're not the first ones to build.
Biomimicry is gaining a lot of momentum after Janine M. Benyus published the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 2009. Biomimicry (bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a "design discipline" striving for sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.
Benyus' TED Talk helped carry the message to inventors, engineers and designers everywhere that there are graceful ways to design materials that other species and organisms have already invented.
The work of biomimics to imitate the "blueprints" that other organisms have developed out of necessity to solve our most important problems. How about recycling waste? How can using principles such as efficiency and minimal materials, self-assembling systems, safe and beneficial byproducts, and ecosystem services helped the world of recycling?
AskNature.org is a biomimicry search engine designed to help innovators find examples of inventions we can adopt. So, what organisms can breakdown plastic pollution? According to their database, fungi.
Various fungi can digest petroleum, plastic, iron, and other hazardous waste products.
The finding holds promise for potential breakthroughs in bioremediation and dealing with plastic pollution. But managing waste that does not degrade naturally or gracefully is just one part of the problem. The other key area to focus on is product design. The intersection between zero waste and biomimicry is just beginning.
Photo of entangled turtle by