Most of the plastic that has ever been produced on Earth still exists today, and is impacting our lives and our world in ways we never imagined.
Hold up a one inch azure blue marble at arm’s length. That’s what we look like from one million miles away.
We are all part of the same small, gorgeous and blue planet. We are unique in the universe (as far as we know), and teeming with water-based life. All we know from years’ past and all we will know in the future will happen on this spinning orb we call home. Every decision, good or bad, has real, lasting consequences for our world. This blue marble is our one and only—as they say, “There is no Planet B.” In the past century, however, our material lives have reflected a vastly different philosophy. A mere hundred years ago, the way we move and live changed dramatically with the use of petroleum as fuel and as materials like plastic. This new way of living unleashed a cascade of unintended chemical consequences on the earth. Climate change, ocean acidification and oil spills are all real threats to our environment, but the plague I wish to discuss is plastic pollution.
During the past century, plastic production has soared from close to nothing in 1912 to more than 1.5 million metric tons in 1950 and nearly 300 million metric tons in 2012. Our planet’s system has failed to manage this material—since the 1970s a staggering quantity of this plastic has ended up in our waterways and oceans. Estimates suggest that hundreds of millions of tons of plastics have entered marine ecosystems and the problem continues to grow. Kids growing up 50 years ago were part of a very different consumer landscape: drinking water came from water fountains, milk came in glass bottles and plastic shopping bags didn’t exist. It was rare to find plastic trash, but when it was encountered, we removed it and restored the beach, trail or park to its relatively natural, clean state.
In a few quick decades that’s all changed. Plastic production has grown exponentially and it now pervades our lives. It’s everywhere and it’s unavoidable. From fashion to electronics to vehicles, we have created an economy based on our ability to discard objects that may or may not still be useful. Even our word choices reflect our lack of consideration for how our actions impact the planet. “Throw away” is what we think we are doing when we discard an unneeded object.
“No one ever thought about, what does ‘away’ really mean?” my friend and renowned ocean explorer Dr. Marcus Eriksen said. “You are living in a world with 7 billion people now. There is no room for ‘away’.”
There is no room for "away".
Walking a beach on a remote, uninhabited island in Indonesia, I found colorful remnants of many items, discarded by former owners far, far away. The ubiquity of plastic has become the new normal, part of the ecosystem, with ramifications that boggle the mind.
The ocean is not “full” of plastic—it’s far too vast. But plastic has invaded ecosystems, animals and our bodies in ways its inventors and makers could never have imagined.
Once at sea, plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, but it still doesn’t really go “away”. Some sinks to the ocean floor, some washes up on beaches and some is eaten by fish and other animals, and makes its way back to us in our seafood. A plastic bottle can take hundreds of years to degrade, whereas a long-lasting coconut fiber degrades in just twenty years, an orange peel in six months and brown paper in only a few weeks.
As plastic persists in the environment it breaks into ever-smaller fragments called micro-plastic. Consumer products like facial scrubs and toothpaste can also contain tiny plastic beads that make their way to our waterways. About 10 percent of this plastic is visible, while the rest is buried under the sand.
On one seemingly clean beach, Marc Ward from the Sea Turtles Forever Blue Wave Team filtered more than half a pound of plastic from one square meter of water at Crescent Beach, Oregon in 2012. His plastic haul included 739 styrene flakes and 861 industrial pellets. Micro-plastic can be found in the Great Lakes, many rivers and every single ocean around the world.
In Brazil we discovered more than 3,400 pieces of plastic of all sizes inside one young green sea turtle—a new (sad) record. By my estimates every sea turtle on the planet will eat some plastic during its life. At the one extreme the animal can choke, suffocate and die. If it gets off easy and survives the plastic it will have decreased energy, slower growth and lower reproductive rates. Ultimately, this means fewer baby turtles.
Cleaning up this mess is a huge challenge, but countries, municipalities and communities around the world are taking action to stem the flow of plastics into our environment and find real, lasting solutions. We have the answers and technologies to solve this problem, but we need more political and personal will to do it.
It’s clear to me that things will get much worse before they get better: plastic production continues to increase while recovery, reuse and recycling fails to keep pace. But it’s also true that in the past decade the number of citizens, scientists, businesses, students, organizations and governments working towards a fix has grown tremendously. Bold experiments with materials, communications and policy are underway with the results being shared fast and far.
Along with understanding that there is no “away”, we need to wrestle with the question of “how much is enough?” Can you borrow and lend what you do have, instead of buying something new? Can you make more things yourself? Can you buy local and support responsible businesses that provide products with a smaller footprint and a longer functional life?
It’s time to use our creativity, passion, drive and innovative thinking to promote positive change, and evolve the way we live and love our one blue marble. And remember, “away” is right here. And enough is enough.
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