We Made Plastic. We Depend on It. Now We’re Drowning in It.

(National Geographic) – Excerpts from the full story, which is found in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine. This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—National Geographic’s multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis and reducing the amount of single-use plastic that is polluting our world’s oceans.

“No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. Imagine five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, Jambeck says, sitting on every foot of coastline around the world—that would correspond to about 8.8 million tons, her middle-of-the-road estimate of what the ocean gets from us annually. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.

Meanwhile, ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. Some are harmed visibly—strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings. Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across. On Hawaii’s Big Island, on a beach that seemingly should have been pristine—no paved road leads to it—I walked ankle-deep through microplastics. They crunched like Rice Krispies under my feet. After that, I could understand why some people see ocean plastic as a looming catastrophe, worth mentioning in the same breath as climate change. At a global summit in Nairobi last December, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme spoke of an “ocean Armageddon.” And yet there’s a key difference: Ocean plastic is not as complicated as climate change. There are no ocean trash deniers, at least so far. To do something about it, we don’t have to remake our planet’s entire energy system.

“This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is,” says Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist who has spent more than
25 years working with developing nations on garbage. “We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.” It’s a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems, he says—ideally before the ocean turns, irretrievably and for centuries to come, into a thin soup of plastic.

In Plymouth, under the gray gloom of an English autumn, Richard Thompson waited in a yellow slicker outside Plymouth University’s Coxside Marine Station, at the edge of the harbor. A lean man of 54, with a smooth pate rimmed with gray hair, Thompson was headed for an ordinary career as a marine ecologist in 1993—he was working on a Ph.D. on limpets and microalgae that grow on coastal rocks—when he participated in his first beach cleanup, on the Isle of Man. While other volunteers zoomed in on the plastic bottles and bags and nets, Thompson focused on the small stuff, the tiny particles that lay underfoot, ignored, at the high tide line. At first he wasn’t even sure they were plastic. He had to consult forensic chemists to confirm it.

There was a real mystery to be solved back then, at least in academic circles: Scientists wondered why they weren’t finding even more plastic in the sea. World production has increased exponentially—from 2.3 million tons in 1950, it grew to 162 million in 1993 and to 448 million by 2015—but the amount of plastic drifting on the ocean and washing up on beaches, alarming as it was, didn’t seem to be rising as fast. “That begs the question: Where is it?” Thompson said. “We can’t establish harm to the environment unless we know where it is.”

In the years since his first beach cleanup, Thompson has helped provide the beginnings of an answer: The missing plastic is getting broken into pieces so small they’re hard to see. In a 2004 paper, Thompson coined the term “microplastics” for these small bits, predicting—accurately, as it turned out—that they had “potential for large-scale accumulation” in the ocean.

When we met in Plymouth last fall, Thompson and two of his students had just completed a study that indicated it’s not just waves and sunlight that break down plastic. In lab tests, they’d watched amphipods of the species Orchestia gammarellus—tiny shrimplike crustaceans that are common in European coastal waters—devour pieces of plastic bags and determined they could shred a single bag into 1.75 million microscopic fragments. The little creatures chewed through plastic especially fast, Thompson’s team found, when it was coated with the microbial slime that is their normal food. They spat out or eventually excreted the plastic bits.

Microplastics have been found everywhere in the ocean that people have looked, from sediments on the deepest seafloor to ice floating in the Arctic—which, as it melts over the next decade, could release more than a trillion bits of plastic into the water, according to one estimate.”

Yiwu International Trade City, in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, is the world’s largest wholesale market for small commodities—and a plastic feast for the eyes. More than 70,000 booths, housed in a series of connected buildings, sell everything from inflatable pools to cooking utensils to artificial flowers. To photographer Richard John Seymour, the market felt both utterly familiar, because its goods are found everywhere, and completely foreign, because of the mind-boggling volume. China is the largest producer of plastic—it accounts for more than a quarter of the global total—much of it exported to the world. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD JOHN SEYMOUR

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Laura Parker is a staff writer who specializes in covering climate change and marine environments. Prior to joining National Geographic, Parker worked as a national correspondent for USA Today and covered aviation for the Washington Post. She has written on topics such as avian flu in Southeast Asia, the descendants of the H.M.S. Bounty’s mutineers on Pitcairn Island, and sea-level rise in South Florida.

She has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. An Alicia Patterson fellowship enabled her to spend a year in Tunica, Mississippi, for a comprehensive story on illiteracy, poverty, and casino gambling in the Delta. Parker co-authored, with her husband, William Prochnau, Miracle on the Hudson, an account of the crash landing of US Airways Flight 1589 on the Hudson River in 2009.

The full article was published here at in the June issue of National Geographic.

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