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The Persistence of Plastic

For Earth Day, a look at the gift that keeps on giving.

Plastic debris

Plastic debris on the beach. Photo by LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps. (NOAA Photo Library: fish1968) [CC-BY-2.0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Plastics.” That famous line from The Graduate has stuck with us for many years—and so, for better or worse, have plastics themselves. Today, plastics are in just about everything we make and use, from cars and computers to clothing and food storage containers. And with good reason: plastics are generally inexpensive, easy to mass-produce, light, strong, durable, corrosion-resistant, with good thermal and electrical insulation properties.

Because plastics are so cheap, most of the plastic containers we use are designed for a single use. And each year we use more; according to a 2010 report from KPMG International, plastic production during the past decade equals that of the entire twentieth century. Although we don’t give those single-use containers another thought once we dispose of them, we should; they are and will always be with us.

Toothbrush regurgitated by albatross.

Undigested matter regurgitated by a Hawaiian albatross on Tern Island, Hawaii, includes several ingested flotsam items, including monofilament fishing line from fishing nets and a discarded toothbrush.

Plastic of all sorts is finding its way into our oceans, not only creating huge floating islands of trash at various gyre sites around the globe, but also, and more insidiously, as microparticles that are nearly invisible to the eye. Larger bits and pieces such as plastic juice-bottle caps and plastic bags are mistaken for food and eaten by seabirds, seals, sea turtles, and fish, which can and often does eventually kill them. They eat lots of plastic, as it turns out: in 2011, a small green sea turtle in Brazil was found to have 3400 pieces of plastic in its large intestine.

You are what you eat. (And what you launder.)

According to studies cited by Scientific American’s John Platt, a major source of plastic in our oceans is our laundry—polyester, acrylics, and other synthetic fabrics generate thousands of tiny microparticles of plastic every time they are washed and dried, and those particles end up in our oceans and on coastal beaches.

There are two big reasons to rethink your wardrobe choices:

First, these plastic microparticles are being ingested by filter feeders at the bottom of the food chain, creatures such as mussels and sea cucumbers. Unable to discriminate between ocean sediment and tiny particles of plastic, they eat both. And, as the mussels are consumed by other animals, and those animals are consumed, and so on, those plastic bits move right up the food chain.

Second, due to their relatively large surface area, microparticles of plastic absorb whatever is in the water. Think about it: when a piece of plastic is broken into fragments, the total volume remains the same, but the surface area is greatly increased. In particular, plastics act like sponges for persistent toxic compounds in water, and where there is more surface area available, more toxins are absorbed. Toxins in our oceans originate from many sources, including plastic additives and pesticides. In fact, a worldwide survey by the International Pellet Watch found that concentrations of toxic compounds in microplastics were orders of magnitude up to 1 million times greater than in the surrounding waters. And that’s what mussels are eating on their way to your dinner plate.

So what can you do about it? Minimize your use of single-use plastic food containers and packaging as much as you can. Reuse, repurpose, and recycle. Bring your own cloth bags to the grocery store. Buy clothes made of natural fibers like cotton, linen, and wool. And, if you’re a brilliant marine biologist, chemical engineer, and/or superhero, figure out how we can get—and keep—all of that plastic out of our oceans.

Don’t miss photographer Chris Jordan’s hauntingly beautiful photographs from Midway Island: seabirds that fell victim to the lure of brightly colored plastic.  

Comments: 3

  1. Great article,
    Thanks Edie!
    Where is the public outcry? Our carbon footprint includes many things which whether we like it or not wil be forced upon our descendants. Very tragic. I am sure we could attract people who wouldn’t mind helping to clean these pools.

    • I think there might be an opportunity here — since the plastic microparticles absorb toxins from the water, perhaps we can use them to clean our oceans. We just have to figure out how to get those microparticles filtered out of the water, and then, of course, figure out what to do with them once we’ve captured them all.

  2. thank you, Edie, for the wonderful insights!

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