WE MADE PLASTIC. WE DEPEND ON IT. AND NOW WE’RE DROWNING IN IT. The miracle material has made modern life possible. But more than 40 percent of plastic is used just once, and it’s choking our waterways.
“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 nations on garbage. “We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.” It’s a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems, he says—ideally before the ocean turns, irretrievably and for centuries to come, into a thin soup of plastic.
In Plymouth, under the gray gloom of an English autumn, Richard Thompson waited in a yellow slicker outside Plymouth University’s Coxside Marine Station, at the edge of the harbor. A lean man of 54, with a smooth pate rimmed with gray hair, Thompson was headed for an ordinary career as a marine ecologist in 1993—he was working on a Ph.D. on limpets and microalgae that grow on coastal rocks—when he participated in his first beach cleanup, on the Isle of Man. While other volunteers zoomed in on the plastic bottles and bags and nets, Thompson focused on the small stuff, the tiny particles that lay underfoot, ignored, at the high tide line. At first he wasn’t even sure they were plastic. He had to consult forensic chemists to confirm it.
There was a real mystery to be solved back then, at least in academic circles: Scientists wondered why they weren’t finding even more plastic in the sea. World production has increased exponentially—from 2.3 million tons in 1950, it grew to 162 million in 1993 and to 448 million by 2015—but the amount of plastic drifting on the ocean and washing up on beaches, alarming as it was, didn’t seem to be rising as fast. “That begs the question: Where is it?” Thompson said. “We can’t establish harm to the environment unless we know where it is.”
In the years since his first beach cleanup, Thompson has helped provide the beginnings of an answer: The missing plastic is getting broken into pieces so small they’re hard to see. In a 2004 paper, Thompson coined the term “microplastics” for these small bits, predicting—accurately, as it turned out—that they had “potential for large-scale accumulation” in the ocean.
Microplastics have been found everywhere in the ocean that people have looked, from sediments on the deepest seafloor to ice floating in the Arctic—which, as it melts over the next decade, could release more than a trillion bits of plastic into the water, according to one estimate. On some beaches on the Big Island of Hawaii, as much as 15 percent of the sand is actually grains of microplastic. Kamilo Point Beach, the one I walked on, catches plastic from the North Pacific gyre, the trashiest of five swirling current systems that transport garbage around the ocean basins and concentrate it in great patches. At Kamilo Point the beach is piled with laundry baskets, bottles, and containers with labels in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, English, and occasionally, Russian. On Henderson Island, an uninhabited coral island in the South Pacific, researchers have found an astonishing volume of plastic from South America, Asia, New Zealand, Russia, and as far away as Scotland.
As Thompson and I talked about all this, a day boat called the Dolphin was carrying us through a light chop in the Sound, off Plymouth. Thompson reeled out a fine-mesh net called a manta trawl, usually used for studying plankton. We were close to the spot where, a few years earlier, other researchers had collected 504 fish of 10 species and given them to Thompson. Dissecting the fish, he was surprised to find microplastics in the guts of more than one-third of them. The finding made international headlines.
“We do know the concentrations of chemicals at the time of manufacture in some cases are very high,” Thompson said. “We don’t know how much additive is left in the plastic by the time it becomes bite-size to a fish.
“Nobody has found nanoparticles in the environment—they’re below the level of detection for analytical equipment. People think they are out there. They have the potential to be sequestered in tissue, and that could be a game changer.”
Thompson is careful not to get ahead of the science on his subject. He’s far from an alarmist—but he’s also convinced that plastic trash in the ocean is far more than an aesthetic problem. “I don’t think we should be waiting for a key finding of whether or not fish are hazardous to eat,” he said. “We have enough evidence to act.”
THE WORLD CAPITAL OF EVERYDAY PLASTIC
In one of their early applications, they saved wildlife. In the mid-1800s, piano keys, billiard balls, combs, and all manner of trinkets were made of a scarce natural material: elephant ivory. With the elephant population at risk and ivory expensive and scarce, a billiards company in New York City offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could come up with an alternative.
As Susan Freinkel tells the tale in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, an amateur inventor named John Wesley Hyatt took up the challenge. His new material, celluloid, was made of cellulose, the polymer found in all plants. Hyatt’s company boasted that it would eliminate the need “to ransack the Earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.” Besides sparing at least some elephants, celluloid also helped change billiards from solely an aristocratic pastime to one that working people play in bars.
That’s a trivial example of a profound revolution ushered in by plastic—an era of material abundance. The revolution accelerated in the early 20th century, once plastics began to be made from the same stuff that was giving us abundant, cheap energy: petroleum. Oil companies had waste gases like ethylene coming out the stacks of their refineries. Chemists discovered they could use those gases as building blocks, or monomers, to create all sorts of novel polymers—polyethylene terephthalate, for example, or PET—instead of working only with polymers that already existed in nature. A world of possibilities opened up. Anything and everything could be made of plastic, and so it was, because plastics were cheap.
They were so cheap, we began to make things we never intended to keep. In 1955 Life magazine celebrated the liberation of the American housewife from drudgery. Under the headline “Throwaway Living,” a photograph showed a family flinging plates, cups, and cutlery into the air. The items would take 40 hours to clean, the text noted—“except that no housewife need bother.” When did plastics start to show their dark side? You might say it was when the junk in that photo hit the ground.
Six decades later, roughly 40 percent of the now more than 448 million tons of plastic produced every year is disposable, much of it used as packaging intended to be discarded within minutes after purchase. Production has grown at such a breakneck pace that virtually half the plastic ever manufactured has been made in the past 15 years. Last year the Coca-Cola Company, perhaps the world’s largest producer of plastic bottles, acknowledged for the first time just how many it makes: 128 billion a year. Nestlé, PepsiCo, and others also churn out torrents of bottles.
In recent years the surge in production has been driven largely by the expanded use of disposable plastic packaging in the growing economies of Asia—where garbage collection systems may be underdeveloped or nonexistent. In 2010, according to an estimate by Jambeck, half the world’s mismanaged plastic waste was generated by just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.
“Let’s say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe,” says Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University who also works in his native India. “You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste.”
A LIFETIME OF PLASTIC: The first plastics made from fossil fuels are just over a century old. They came into widespread use after World War II and are found today in everything from cars to medical devices to food packaging. Their useful lifetime varies. Once disposed of, they break down into smaller fragments that linger for centuries.
Total: 448 million tons produced in 2015
Growth in Asia: As the economies in Asia grow, so does demand for consumer products—and plastics. Half the world’s plastics are made there, 29 percent in China.
The legacy of World War II: Shortages of natural materials during the war led to a search for synthetic alternatives—and to an exponential surge in plastic production that continues today. The largest market for plastics today is for packaging materials. That trash now accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste generated globally; most of it never gets recycled or incinerated.
DURABLE CHAINS: Plastics are polymers: Long-chain molecules made of repeating links, or monomers. The chains are strong, light, and durable, which makes them so useful—and so problematic when they’re disposed of carelessly. Chemical reactions Heat, pressure, and catalysts drive reactions that link the monomers. The monomers that are synthesized into plastics are usually derived from fossil fuels such as crude oil and natural gas.