There’s Way Too Much Plastic in the World’s Oceans

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Chris Jordan’s “Gyre,” which evokes Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” All the plastic used in this work of visual art was recovered from the Pacific Ocean. (Image Source: Chris Jordan/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There’s so many crises around the world, it can be genuinely difficult to know where to start. In many respects, we’re still recovering from a global financial crisis (and may well be on our way to another one). On a related note, the United States economy is saddled by debt. Medical debt. Credit card debt. Student loan debt. Homeowner debt. Debt, debt, debt. And this is all before we get to the national debt. Guns and school shootings. Opioids. Housing crises. Water crises. Humanitarian crises. It’s a wonder more of us don’t spend our lives in a state of constant crisis—not to mention there’s a mental health crisis facing many Americans.

With so much to worry about, there wouldn’t seem to be much room for anything else, and yet, we still haven’t mentioned potentially the biggest crisis of them all: the climate crisis. I’m not even going to get into the debate about whether or not we’re contributing to climate change. If you choose to ignore an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community, that’s your business. You can decry my liberal bias and skip past this piece, no hurt feelings.

If, like myself, you do accept that we’re hastening the warming of the planet and the degradation of habitats across the globe, then there’s an aspect to global pollution that deserves its fair share of attention. I’m talking about the plastic pollution crisis, especially as it pertains to the world’s oceans.

In terms of what we need to do to avert a climate catastrophe—assuming too much damage hasn’t already been done—while not to dismiss recycling and cleaning beaches and rivers and such, it’s clear that these efforts alone will not suffice when addressing this issue. Dame Ellen MacArthur, retired professional yachtswoman and one-time record holder of the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, and thus someone very familiar with the seas and their condition, is one of the many voices who recognizes this state of affairs.

In a recent op-ed piece, MacArthur details the gravity of the plastic pollution situation. The reality is indeed grim.

In the few minutes it will take you to read this article, another five truckloads of plastic will have been dumped in the ocean. The consequences of this are far-reaching, and evidence is growing that people around the world are ingesting microplastics through their food and drinking water. We have reached a point where even the air we breathe can contain plastic, and if we fail to act, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

“More plastic than fish?” That doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, let alone good for Mother Earth. Nor does ingesting and breathing in plastic sound appealing. However you slice it, the abundance of plastic in our world today is a problem. There are health and fresh water concerns, and not just for fish but other water-dwelling animals and those that prey on contaminated food sources (like us, potentially).

In addition, and if these concerns don’t move you, there’s the matter of the economic waste alongside the physical misuse of resources. As MacArthur explains, citing a report by the World Economic Forum, the global economy loses an estimated $80 billion to $120 billion a year because of plastic waste. That’s a fair bit of cash lost at the expense of plastic pollution.

As MacArthur underscores, we really need to stop plastic at the source. This includes companies changing product design and otherwise producing less plastic. It also involves governments of different scale investing in better plastic collection infrastructure and enacting policies and strategies to specifically curb plastic use. And this is just a start.

What’s paramount at this stage late in the game is, coinciding with the broad scientific consensus on the need to act in response to the global climate crisis, a comprehensive approach to reducing our reliance on plastic. Such a unified front must obviously span nations and fields. MacArthur touts the creation of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, an agreement that lists governments, industry groups, NGOs, private investors, universities, and other organizations as signatories. The Chilean, French, and UK governments are included in this group. Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, H&M, Johnson and Johnson, L’Oréal, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Walmart are members, too, as is the World Wildlife Fund.

An accord like this, of course, means nothing without standards. The Global Commitment evidently comes with stipulations attached to participation, with 2025 as a target date for meaningful action on its terms. Adherence to the commitment’s terms will also be regularly reviewed, and as such, continued involvement with the project is conditional. The themes herein are accountability and transparency, qualities not automatically associated with national governments and multinational corporations.

The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is one that reflects the kind of ambition necessary to adequately confront the plastic pollution issue as a subset of the climate crisis. It’s still in its relative infancy, too, so this public-private agreement has room yet to expand and attract more attention. Whether as a precursor to a larger accord or as a model for legislative efforts, the emphasis regardless is on a large-scale commitment along the lines of the Paris climate agreement. In truth, it makes sense. A majority of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, after all.


As you might imagine, other activists and people outspoken on this issue share Dame Ellen MacArthur’s sense of urgency about acting to ameliorate the ever-growing plastic problem. Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, also penned an op-ed stressing that recycling alone will not fix the issue. As she argues, cleanups, recycling, and bans on items like plastic bags, cups, and straws are great, but real accountability for companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, and Unilever is essential because they are big drivers of plastic waste. With drink companies producing over 500 billion single-use plastic bottles a year, and with over 300 million tons of plastic being produced back in 2015 and expected to double by 2025, Leonard points to these leaders of industry as possessing the onus to act. Their scale of production is simply too large for individual campaigns alone to fight.

Emily Atkin, staff writer at The New Republic, meanwhile, looks to primary political players on the world stage to act in the interest of the planet. Part of the solution, she finds, involves saying no to fossil fuels, which comprise and are used in the making of plastics. (And, you know, are kind of a big part of this whole climate crisis.) Otherwise, agreements containing specific, legally-binding targets for pollution are of paramount importance. Atkin cites a UN resolution from late 2017 on eliminating plastic pollution, ones to which countries like China, India, and the U.S. are signatories, but of which they also refused to sign an earlier draft with more teeth to it.

In the case of America with Trump at the helm, it shouldn’t surprise you to know we were active in trying to kill that earlier draft. Sure, China is far and way the biggest producer of plastic waste, and other Asian countries are more prolific than the U.S., so to speak. Regardless, much of the rest of the world looks to America as a leader. Trump’s America is unquestionably failing the international audience on matters of environmental responsibility.

Looking back at the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, it’s worth assessing how exacting its requirements truly are. The language of the Global Commitment makes reference to companies and other signatories “taking action” or “setting ambitious targets.” These are not defined in detail, and in terms of accountability, the agreement only specifies that individual commitments “will be reviewed” and that the proverbial bar will be raised “after consultation with signatories.” What happens if a signatory reneges on its responsibilities? Indeed, it might be excommunicated from this group, but is public shame alone enough to compel it to act more responsibly? Short of economic incentives or legal consequences, it seems doubtful.

It’s tough to know what exactly will constitute a breaking point more than what we’ve already seen. There’s an estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic (and growing) in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a loose assortment of debris within the North Pacific Gyre believed to be over a million square kilometers in area. The Atlantic has its own garbage patch, and there are others to be found in other gyres around the world.

These patches might be hard to see even with the naked eye, but they’re there. The plastic we throw away doesn’t just disappear. In an increasingly interconnected world, it’s not someone else’s problem either. If you’re OK with microplastics in the water we drink and the food we eat and the very air we breathe, again, chalk this all up to scaremongering and dismiss it, no hard feelings. If that’s not your idea of a fun future, however, there’s way too much plastic in the world’s oceans. It’s time the corporations, governments, and people with the most power to effect change did their fair share to clean up our mess.

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