MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
(Soundbite of movie "The Graduate")
Mr. WALTER BROOKE (Actor): (As Mr. McGuire) I just want to say one word to you - just one word.
SIEGEL: Forty years ago, a young Dustin Hoffman received this famous piece of advice in the movie "The Graduate."
(Soundbite of movie "The Graduate")
Mr. BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) Are you listening?
Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Benjamin Braddock) Yes, I am.
Mr. BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) Plastics.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) There's a great future in plastics.
SIEGEL: Well, that statement turned out to be unbelievably prophetic. The world, if not Benjamin Braddock, embraced plastic in ways no one could have imagined, even in 1967. But while plastic has become indispensable, it is, in many ways, indestructible. And the millions of tons of it created every year are posing a serious threat to the environment.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren saw that firsthand in the Central Pacific Ocean in Midway Atoll.
(Soundbite of birdcalls)
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Midway is home to the world's largest colony of Laysan albatross. They're about the size of turkeys, but with elegant six-foot wingspans and a flamboyant courtship dance. So many of them are looking for love on a large grassy field, but it looks like a giant dance class.
Mr. JOHN KLAVITTER (Biologist, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge): They go up on their tippy toes, they clap their bills back and forth faster than I can snap my hands. They lift their bills up and they give this amazing sky moo. And it's just beautiful.
SHOGREN: John Klavitter is the resident biologist here. He says that at the hundreds of thousands of chicks that hatch here each year, many don't make it -so many that it's somebody's job just to pick up the bodies.
Klavitter takes me to an out-of-the-way corner of the island near some abandoned buildings, where lots of dead chicks are among the live ones. Klavitter picks up a bone and uses it to pick open a dead chick.
Mr. KLAVITTER: We are opening up a carcass. What do we find inside? Let's see here. Lots of, kind of, shiny black squid beaks and plenty of plastics. This looks like a little toy wheel from some children's toy there.
SHOGREN: Klavitter says, on average, a healthy albatross chick has one ounce of plastic in its belly while a dead chick has twice that much.
Mr. KLAVITTER: Two ounces might not seem a lot, but plastic is very light, so if you look at the volume, it's really significant. It's - perhaps, about one third of their stomach is plastic.
SHOGREN: And does that take the place of something that could nourish them?
Mr. KLAVITTER: It sure does. I mean, the stomach has only a finite volume area, and so if it's filled up with 30 percent plastic, that's 30 percent less food that the chick can have in its stomach.
SHOGREN: That can lead to dehydration, starvation and death. But where does the plastic come from and how do the chicks get it? Everywhere around the island, you see cigarette lighters, bottle caps - all kinds of stuff. But Klavitter says the plastic in the chicks' bellies comes from hundreds of miles away.
Mr. KLAVITTER: The chicks are totally dependent on being fed by their parents. So, the parents will fly quite a distance from Midway, land on the ocean, and they float on the ocean, much like a duck, and they wait for food to come to the surface.
SHOGREN: Tragically, what they often see is plastic bobbing on the water. They grab it - thinking it's food - and they fly all the way back to Midway, as much as a thousand miles, and feed that plastic to their chick.
Mr. KLAVITTER: Most likely, the majority of the plastic is thrown into streets. And eventually, it will go down a storm drain. It will go down into a river and finally flow out into the ocean.
Mr. JAMIE BARLOW (Coral reef researcher): A little bit of chop today, not too bad.
SHOGREN: The next day, Jamie Barlow and a team of coral reef researchers gave me a firsthand look at the problem. Barlow's driving the boat away from the island through a crystal clear water that ranges in color from light turquoise to almost navy.
Mr. BARLOW: Well, there's a piece of plastic, you see that? We get a lot of garbage and stuff that close in.
SHOGREN: Circular currents, known as the North Pacific Gyre, bring it here from all over the ocean.
Mr. BARLOW: Oh, here's some marine debris. See that big thing in the eddy?
Ms. KRISTEN McCAULEY (Coral reef researcher): Oh, we should grab that.
Mr. BARLOW: Should we grab that?
Ms. McCAULEY: Yeah.
Mr. BARLOW: Okay. Let me come on to the southward side. Got it, Kristen?
Ms. McCAULEY: Got it.
SHOGREN: Kristen McCauley pulls a tangled mass out of the water. It's about five feet in diameter.
Mr. BARLOW: Oh, that's a big one.
Ms. WENDY COVER (Marine biologist): It's fishing netting and lines that are either discarded or accidentally fall off fishing boats all around the Pacific.
SHOGREN: Marine biologist Wendy Cover says scads of this swirling trash get caught on the shallow reefs and coral of the Northwestern Hawaiian island chain. It breaks off chunks of coral, killing it. Jamie Barlow says that's probably what this floating mass would have done if the researchers hadn't snagged it.
Mr. BARLOW: This is kind of typical marine debris, too. It's a bunch of gobbledygook. And as you can imagine, floating around out there, it would be great habitat for little fish and stuff. So larger things come in there to try to eat some of the little fish and crabs that would be growing in there. Yeah. See, there's a little crab. That's Ralph. We're letting Ralph go.
SHOGREN: Hawaiian monk seals also are vulnerable. They're one of the most endangered animals on Earth, with only about 1,000 individuals left. They're curious by nature. They poke their heads into the snarls of plastic and get caught. Whales, dolphins and turtles also get trapped, and countless seabirds.
The federal government is concerned about the problem. President Bush named the whole chain of islands a Marine National Monument. He even banned fishing here, but he can't keep the plastic out.
Mr. MICHAEL TOSATTO (Regional Director, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): In the last 10 years, we've taken almost 550 tons out of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
SHOGREN: Michael Tosatto is the deputy regional director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He's standing next to a huge pile of ropes, netting, buckets, buoys and other assorted trash - all plastic. Government divers pulled it out of the water.
Mr. TOSATTO: And this was all picked up only from Midway in a four-day period.
SHOGREN: It's not a problem that's going away. The government says 50 tons of plastic arrives here each year.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.