In November of 2018, on a beach in Indonesia, the body of an adult sperm whale washed ashore, precipitating a global conversation about the plastics crisis. Inside the stomach of the whale, over a thousand unique pieces of plastic were found, including flip-flops, bags, bottles, and 115 plastic drinking cups.
While we’ve long recognized that use of single-use plastics was problematic, the scale of the whale’s contamination from our plastic waste shocked the conscience of people all around the world and has led to calls from many to address what many have wanted to avoid dealing with finally. What can we do about our use of plastics to protect the environment?
A History of Plastic
Ironically, Plastics began as the answer to a different ecological crisis. By the middle of the 19th century, consumer goods from hair combs to piano keys were made from elephant ivory and people at the time recognized that the growing consumer class in the West would drive the elephants from which ivory was harvested into extinction.
The solution came in the form of a contest. A New York City Billiards company issuing a public reward of $10,000 for a viable replacement material for the ivory that billiard balls were then made of. Amateur inventor John Wesley Hyatt took up the challenge.
His invention, celluloid, was a polymer made from cellulose, a material found in every plant in the world. Hyatt’s company argued that celluloid would save us from “[ransacking] the Earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”
When it was later discovered that plastics could be made as a by-product of petroleum refining, the explosion of cheap plastics was inevitable.
From the 1950s, the growth rate in the production of plastic has been exponential. In 65 years, the world went from producing a few million tons of plastic to 448 million tons in 2015 alone, with about 40% of that being plastic packaging and single-use containers.
The rate is only accelerating. Roughly one half of the plastic human beings have produced in our history has been produced since the year 2000. And it’s not hard to see why.
First, plastic is cheaper than the alternatives. Plastic can be molded into any shape, any thickness, or dyed any color. It can stretch and it can be a very tough material when needed, making it excellent for industrial applications and parts in machinery.
The Problem of Plastics
That toughness is now part of the problem. Unlike other natural materials, plastic takes a very, very long time to break down and this makes the management of this waste a challenge for even advanced economies.
In the developing areas of the world, the problem is even more acute. Infrastructure for waste management, if it exists at all, was never intended to deal with the sheer volume of it has to cope with now.
Without trash collection, the nearest waterway is usually the dump of only resort. It's not surprising then that waterways that have been pristine for millennia before the 20th century have become choked with plastic refuse within a couple of decades.
The Pasig River in the Philippines was once one of the most valuable and beautiful waterways in the world, flowing through the capital city of Manila and flowing into the once-pristine Manila Bay.
Now, upwards of 70,000 tons of plastic is washed into the sea by the Pasig River, fed from the 51 tributaries that feed into it which reach deep into the more rural and poorer parts of the country.
In 1990, the Pasig, once full of life, was declared biologically dead.
Threats to Marine Life
For decades, people were content to let the oceans take care of it. The ocean is big enough to deal with plastics, so we humans won’t have to. We failed to appreciate the scope of our dumping and the effect that it would have.
In a 2016 study, researchers looked at photos and video of debris taken by divers during more than 5000 ocean dives over the last 30 years. They found that the majority of debris in the ocean is now plastic, with 89% of plastics discovered being single use plastics like shopping bags, bottles, and containers.
In 17% of images with plastic debris in them, researchers found marine life interacting with the debris, such as marine animals getting tangled up. Most disturbing of all is the discovery of a plastic shopping bag on the floor of the Mariana Trench, the most remote place in the ocean, 36,000 below sea level.
Marine life simply has no way to distinguish plastic from jellyfish, seaweed, or plankton and consume this material without a second thought.
And this problem will only continue to worsen over time as the plastic material is broken up through currents, sunlight, and the consumption and excretion by marine life into microplastics, pieces of plastic so small they’re hard for us to see.
Microplastics Are Everywhere
It's gotten to the point where nearly every time scientists look into the ocean, microplastics are found, from the ocean floor, to icebergs in the arctic, to the digestive tracts of marine animals. Even our beaches are contaminated, as in the case of some of the beaches of the Big Island of Hawaii, where as much as 15% of the sand is actually microplastics.
Still, it can and may already be getting much worse. As these microplastics degrade further—into nanoplastics smaller than current technology can measure—the chemicals used to make them may be released into the oceans.
Richard Thompson, the scientist who coined the term microplastics in a scientific paper back in 2004—he was describing their presence in samples he’d taken for research—, says the crisis still has plenty of room to get worse.
“Nobody has found nanoparticles in the environment," Thompson says, "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.”
So What Do We Do About Plastics?
The principle issue, authorities on the subject point out, is the difficulty of many developing countries to manage the vast amounts of waste produced by the growing abundance of cheap plastic packaged goods—goods originally developed with nations that had established waste management systems in mind.
Ted Siegler, a resource economist who has spent over 25 years helping developing countries manage their material waste problems, says that the problem is the lack of institutions and systems in the developing countries to handle the influx of cheap plastics.
“We know how to pick up garbage,” he says. “Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.”
The blame cannot belong to the consumers generating the waste alone.
“We believe that the ones producing and promoting single-use plastics have a major role in the whole problem,” says Abigail Aguilar, a representative for the environmental group Greenpeace, who have attempted major beach cleanup operations in the developing world, only to see their work reversed within weeks as new plastic trash makes its way to the sea.
Some companies recognize that they must be part of the solution. The Coca-Cola Company, the leading producer of single use plastic bottles, revealed in 2017 that they produce 128 billion single use plastic bottles every year.
In response to the exploding crisis in plastics pollution, they and other multinationals have announced that they will move to 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025.
Many wonder is it will be enough. Jose Antonio Goitia, the executive director of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, offers a more radical solution to the cresting wave of plastics overwhelming his country, “[m]aybe the best thing to do is ban plastic bags.”