If plastic had been invented when the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England, to North America—and the Mayflower had been stocked with bottled water and plastic-wrapped snacks—their plastic trash would likely still be around, four centuries later. If the Pilgrims had been like many people today and simply tossed their empty bottles and wrappers over the side, Atlantic waves and sunlight would have worn all that plastic into tiny bits. And those bits might still be floating around the world’s oceans today, sponging up toxins to add to the ones already in them, waiting to be eaten by some hapless fish or oyster, and ultimately perhaps by one of us. We should give thanks that the Pilgrims didn’t have plastic, I thought recently as I rode a train to Plymouth along England’s south coast. I was on my way to see a man who would help me make sense of the whole mess we’ve made with plastic, especially in the ocean.
Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017. No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. Imagine five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, Jambeck says, sitting on every foot of coastline around the world—that would correspond to about 8.8 million tons, her middle-of-the-road estimate of what the ocean gets from us annually. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely 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. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. Some are harmed visibly—strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings. Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across. On Hawaii’s Big Island, on a beach that seemingly should have been pristine—no paved road leads to it—I walked ankle-deep through microplastics. They crunched like Rice Krispies under my feet. After that, I could understand why some people see ocean plastic as a looming catastrophe, worth mentioning in the same breath as climate change. At a global summit in Nairobi last December, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme spoke of an “ocean Armageddon.” And yet there’s a key difference: Ocean plastic is not as complicated as climate change. There are no ocean trash deniers, at least so far. To do something about it, we don’t have to remake 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 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.