"The plastic pollution crisis rivals the threat of climate change as it pollutes every natural system … "
— Hugo Tagholm, Surfers Against Sewage
Hey! How would you like a bowl of hot plastic soup for lunch? Add the right spices, and your potage can smell and taste like regular soup. And it might look like it, too, so you can get your kids to eat it.
But appearances can be deceptive. That orange chunk of “carrot”? It’s a broken plastic bottle cap. That exotic, filigreed “pasta”? Part of a comb. The “kale” leaves? Shredded plastic bags. Like the robust texture? The broth is thickened with thousands of “microplastic” particles.
This would be a bit of a surreal joke, if not for the fact that we are rapidly turning our oceans into giant bowls of plastic soup. How rapidly?
The 2015 National Geographic article "Eight Million Tons of Plastic Dumped in Ocean Every Year" (available online) described a new method of calculating the quantity of marine plastic pollution that produced the piece’s alarming headline. The study’s lead engineer, Jenna Jambeck, likened the figure to lining up five grocery bags full of trash on every foot of every coastline on the planet.
Even more alarming than its statistics was the study’s projection that by 2025 there would be 155 million tons of plastic waste going into our oceans annually, absent significant reductions in the production and consumption of disposable plastics and equally significant improvements in waste management — neither of which has happened so far. Because marine plastic pollution began at least 50 years ago — and, since few plastics are biodegradable, most will endure for decades or centuries in the environment — the quantity of pollutants builds over time.
While some of the pollution comes from ships, the vast majority comes from inland communities along rivers and coastal cities and towns, predominantly in Asia and Africa where a flourishing “on the go” lifestyle encourages the consumption of disposable plastic products. However, the U.S. remains an integral part of the problem. Due to a glut of natural gas from fracking, we make and market much of the world’s feedstock for plastics manufacturing, an issue we’ll address in my next column.
Unfortunately, “plastic-soup oceans” is not just a metaphor. Most plastic products float, and their destination, once they enter the oceans, is as important as their origin. While some of the billions of bottles, lids, cigarette lighters, hair nets and myriad other disposables wash back onto beaches where they can be removed, the majority drift out to sea. Transported by ocean currents, they eventually are trapped in massive gyres in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The median estimated size of one flotilla, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is ten times the area of Texas — and rapidly growing.
Sunlight and wave action degrades most of the floating plastic, eventually reducing it to pieces the size of sesame seeds or smaller, called microplastics, that continue to drift along, thickening the plastic “soup” while slowly settling into the deep ocean. (Tiny plastic beads from skin defoliants, microfibers from laundered synthetic materials and other products are added to the microplastic mix.)
Lower and higher organisms, including bacteria, shellfish and fish, marine mammals and seabirds, which mistake bits of plastic for food, dine on this toxic broth. Often it kills them. Scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium estimate that 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles die (agonizing deaths) from plastic ingestion each year.
Humans are beginning to eat plastics too, in our seafood and in the numerous bakery and dairy products, candies, salad dressings, processed meats and alcoholic beverages made with seaweed. Be sure to add sea salt to the next pot of soup you cook at your ecological house.