Tom Ross: We can’t ski on polymers forever
January 31, 2011
Steamboat Springs — I found myself wondering during the weekend where the skiing industry would be today without plastics. It's pretty easy to figure out that we'd still be wearing leather boots buckled into a modern version of metal skis like the old Head Standards. We could be sporting padded leather helmets while freezing our butts off riding chairlifts cushioned only with wooden slats.
And don't ask me what today's goggles would look like without plastic.
All of these quaint notions came to me Sunday while I attempted unsuccessfully to get over a stomach bug while sitting on the couch watching the spectacle of the Winter X Games and reading Alan Weisman's book, "The World Without Us."
The book is about the changes wrought on the natural world throughout human history. It begins with Australopithecus standing on two feet and learning to make tools, right up to our modern petroleum-dependent society.
A good portion of the first part of the book examines how quickly the world's great cities would crumble if humankind disappeared from the face of the planet. And how quickly plant and animal communities would thrive once more in a formerly urban environment.
The ninth chapter of the book is entitled "Polymers are forever" and explores the exploding number of plastic products we've come to depend on in the past 60 years.
Weisman describes the work of scientists analyzing the amount of plastic junk washing up on ocean beaches as well as the tiny particles of plastic that are ingested by marine creatures.
On a typical beach, he found nylon rope, syringes, topless plastic food containers, plastic floats separated from ships, a rainbow of plastic bottle caps and thousands of brightly colored plastic shafts left from discarded cotton ear swabs.
He also found large numbers of nurdles — tiny plastic nuggets that are melted down in factories to make plastic products.
Weisman interviewed scientists who have found plastic particles in the guts of dead seabirds and even tiny plastic filaments in the tiny krill that form the basis of the ocean's food chain.
He goes on to describe how, in a remote, becalmed part of the Pacific Ocean called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, an adventurer named Charles Moore found vast rafts of plastic refuse covering the surface of the slowly spiraling water. The millions of pounds of refuse, he learned, are carried into the ocean by rivers and discarded from ocean-going vessels before being concentrated in the remote ocean by currents.
And I'm not crazy enough to suggest that skiers and snowboarders give up their plastic equipment and return to throwback wooden skis and bamboo poles.
Scientists, aware that plastics made out of petroleum will inevitably become prohibitively expensive, are striving to perfect vegetable-based plastics.
I'll never forget my first set of Alpine skiing equipment — leather boots with two sets of laces, and cream-colored Miller skis with hickory cores and some of the earliest plastic bottoms for easy gliding.
Perhaps, if scientists succeed in making plastics out of crops, we could someday be carving up the powder on disposable skis made of chemically altered potato starch. OK, maybe not.