If plastic had been invented when pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England to North America, and the Mayflower had been stocked with bottled water and plastic-wrapped snacks, its plastic trash would probably still have existed four centuries later.
If pilgrims had been like many people today and had simply thrown their empty bottles and wrappers to one side, the Atlantic waves and sunlight would have consumed all that plastic in small pieces. And those pieces could still float in the oceans of the world today, absorbing toxins to add to those already present, waiting to be eaten by some unfortunate fish or oyster, and eventually perhaps by one of us.
We should be thankful that the pilgrims were plastic-free, I thought recently as I was on the train to Plymouth along the south coast of England. I was going to find a man who would help me understand all the mess we made with plastic, especially in the ocean.
Since plastic wasn’t invented until the late 1800s and production only took off around 1950, we only have 9.2 billion tons of material to process. Of these, more than 6.9 billion tons were turned into waste. And of that waste, the staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a trash can, a figure that surprised scientists who analyzed the figures in 2017.
Nobody knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the last sinkhole on Earth. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, an engineering professor at the University of Georgia, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons annually in coastal regions alone. Most are not thrown from ships, she and her colleagues say, but are casually thrown on land or in rivers, especially in Asia. Then it is blown or washed in the sea. She imagines five plastic bags full of plastic garbage, Jambeck says, positioned on every meter of coastline in the world; That would be around 8.8 million tons, your mid-term estimate of what the ocean receives from us each year. It’s unclear how long that plastic will take to fully biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.
Meanwhile, ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Almost 700 species, including those in danger of extinction, are known to have been affected. Some are visibly damaged, strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-piece rings. Many others are likely to take invisible damage. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the pieces less than a fifth of an inch wide. On the Big Island of Hawaii, on a beach that apparently should have been pristine (there is no paved path leading to it), I walked my ankles through microplastics. They nibbled like Rice Krispies under my feet. After that, I was able to understand why some people view ocean plastic as an impending, noteworthy catastrophe along with climate change. At a world summit in Nairobi last December, the director of the United Nations Environment Program spoke of an “oceanic Armageddon”.
Yet there is a fundamental difference: Ocean plastic is not as complicated as climate change. There are no ocean litter deniers, at least so far. To do something about it, we don’t have to redo our planet’s entire energy system.
“This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is,” says Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist who has spent more than 25 years working with developing countries on garbage. “We know how to collect garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to get rid of it. We know how to recycle ”. It is about building the necessary institutions and systems, he says, ideally before the ocean becomes, hopelessly and for centuries to come, a good plastic soup.