If you could stand on the ocean floor, look up, and see only the plastic pollution suspended in our oceans, you would see massive clouds of plastic particles, a mist of dust-like microplastic fragments slowly settling to the seafloor.
This “plastic smog” is taking over our oceans. Today, there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, together weighing more than 250,000 tons.
Plastic in the oceans is always moving, sometimes violently, and becomes brittle under the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It is constantly being attacked by curious fish, seabirds, and marine mammals and reptiles, colonized by millions of microbes, and ingested by zooplankton and other filter feeders, like barnacles and jellyfish. As a result, plastic in the oceans is rapidly shredded into microplastics, which quickly disseminate.
To make matters worse, microplastics act as tiny sponges, absorbing chemical pollutants in the ocean, of which there are many. Chemical pollutants like pesticides flow downhill to the ocean and stick to plastic, leaving most marine scientists in agreement that microplastics in the ocean are hazardous waste.
Microplastics that are not ingested by marine life are typically driven below the ocean surface, to be captured by deep ocean currents for redistribution around the world. We are now finding microplastics in ice cores, remote shores, and on the ocean floor. Where there is seawater, there is plastic.
When faced with air pollution in the 1970s, people had all sorts of outlandish ideas, like installing giant vacuum cleaners on top of city buildings. Others looked up and said, “That doesn’t make sense. Just control emissions at the source.” Laws to control emissions from cars and power plants have since proven to be the solution.
Scientists like myself who study ocean pollution understand that plastic shreds to microplastic rapidly, is globally distributed, and settles to the seafloor the same way air pollution settles to the ground. With this knowledge, the public can accurately say, “Ocean cleanup is not where solutions start. Just control emissions at the source.” All solutions to this problem must start on land.
But controlling emissions is where we find conflict. Plastics Europe and the American Chemistry Council, the trade groups that represent plastic producers and manufactures worldwide, uniformly reject solutions that threaten plastic production. They focus solely on post-consumer waste-management solutions, including more landfills, incinerators, recycling centers, and trash bins, and they expect cities to pay for these solutions with taxpayer funds. They aggressively oppose product phase-outs and bottle bills, regardless of how successful these strategies are at eliminating waste.
Given the latest research on plastic pollution in our oceans, we must agree on a few principles.
First, microplastics should be labeled as hazardous waste. Overwhelming scientific study shows concentrations of toxins on plastic are at very high levels, and these levels decrease when marine organisms try to digest microplastic pollution.
Second, ocean cleanup is an inefficient and unnecessary strategy. The plastic that is in the oceans now will rapidly shred and settle to the seafloor or wash ashore, making cleanup at sea the least efficient means of recovery, and the least effective means of controlling emissions of waste to the ocean. Industry-funded beach and ocean cleanups are largely a distraction from efforts to stop pollution at the source.
Finally, producers must take responsibility for the lifecycle of plastics. Industry must either monetize incentives to recover waste plastics or innovate environmentally friendly product and packaging alternatives. Simply put, if you can’t get your product back, make it harmless. Taxpayers can no longer bear the full responsibility for managing the threats of plastic waste.
Knowing that trillions of plastic particles, which scientists deem hazardous waste, are cycling through entire marine ecosystems underscores the importance that community leaders eliminate single-use, throw-away plastic products and packaging from society. It will take leadership to design better products and packaging to replace the status quo. If we do not end this problem on land, we can surely anticipate greater contamination of all we gather from the sea.