And some in dreams assurèd were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.
— The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, part 2
I have been a seabird biologist for over thirty years. The job has taken me to some of the world’s remotest areas: Alaska’s Little Diomede Island; the Gannet Islands, off the coast of Labrador; New Island, in the Falklands. But no matter how isolated they are, I can count on finding plastic tampon applicators washed up on shores. Early in my career, when I fancied myself an intrepid explorer of wild, untouched landscapes, I considered these too frequently flushed interlopers jarring, to say the least. But I viewed them merely as a problem of aesthetics and ego — not an issue for the environment.
My opinion changed on Valentine’s Day 2017. I was conducting seabird surveys off the coast of New York City. Mylar balloons had scattered with the wind and arrived, deflated, on the ocean surface, brandished with festive messages: “Love You Forever.” “Be Mine!” “With My Whole Heart.” Then I saw a loggerhead turtle making slow but determined progress toward them. Turtles feed primarily on jellyfish. The deflated balloons, with their elaborate ribbon tails, were dead ringers.
As I saw it, there were three possible outcomes. The turtle could catch up with the balloons, eat one, and choke. It might get tangled in the ribbons and drown. Or, optimistically, the wind and surface current, carrying the balloons along the surface, could outpace it. My ship kept steaming on course, and I never found out what happened. But my encounter with that turtle, and the plastic buffet surrounding it, changed me forever.
The earliest form of plastic, celluloid, was created in the nineteenth century as an alternative to elephant ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls. Decades later, the Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland developed Bakelite, a heat-resistant and durable substance that could be moulded to almost any shape — and mass-produced. It became known as “the product of a thousand uses.” From there, the development of new plastic compounds took off.
Modern plastics are petroleum-based, comprising identical carbon-based molecules hooked together in long strands and interwoven millions upon millions of times. The names reflect the composition of the molecule that gets repeated in these strands, starting with “poly,” meaning many: polyester, polyethylene, polystyrene, and the like. But no matter the type, plastics have a strong carbon bond at the centre of their molecular structure, which makes them lightweight and durable. So durable, in fact, that plastic molecules do not break down. Rather, they fracture into smaller and smaller pieces until they eventually become “microplastics.” The cake analogy is a great one. You can break a cake into infinitely smaller crumbs, but it will never revert to its base ingredients: eggs, flour, yeast, butter. The cake remains cake, as plastic remains plastic.
Because of this strength, plastics have been accumulating ever since their creation. Combine the world’s increasing dependence on them with the coinciding population explosion and we find ourselves in an environmental crisis. The statistics are dire. Of the one million water bottles sold every minute worldwide, only 8 percent are recycled. The rest end up in landfills or as litter, leaching toxins into groundwater and streams and, inevitably, ending up in the oceans. The European Parliament reports that there is currently 150 million metric tonnes of garbage in our waters, and 82 percent of it is plastic waste.
Science explains why litter ends up in the oceans. In response to the earth’s rotation, trade winds flow from east to west at the equator, creating east-to-west ocean surface currents. When ocean water meets continental shelves, it spins off to either north or south, creating large, spinning gyres of water. There are five such gyres across the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. Because plastic is free-floating, it moves with the currents. Coastal pollution, drawn out to sea by tides, gets caught in the gyres and becomes concentrated within them. The infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California, for example, was formed from the North Pacific gyre.
There is another important ocean current system that affects plastic distribution, caused by the Arctic and Antarctic bottom waters. These deep rivers interact with ocean bottom features, including continental shelves, pushing cold waters to the surface and displacing warmer water. This movement forms warmer water currents, which act as conveyor belts around the globe, carrying plastic and other free-floating objects.
From 2007 to 2013, an international team, including scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sampled over 1,500 marine field locations, from twenty-four expeditions, analyzing the world’s plastic distribution. Not surprisingly, the highest density of marine microplastics — or “plastic smog” — was concentrated in the ocean’s five gyres. But the team hadn’t expected to find concentrations as far north as the Arctic Circle. As it turns out, the Gulf Stream carried warm water and the plastic within it from the Gulf of Mexico all the way there. This underscored a frightening point: plastic, in all its myriad sizes, colours, and textures, is found throughout all the world’s oceans.
There are a few ways that marine animals, like the turtle I saw, ingest plastic. Most commonly, it’s consumed accidentally. Prey can also attach themselves to it. For example, hard plastic forms a perfect substrate for algae to grow on. When krill graze on the algae, it releases a chemical called dimethyl sulphide, which has a strong scent not unlike rotten eggs. Some species, including many seabirds, are attracted to the aroma, and they incidentally ingest some of the substrate in pursuit of the krill.
Plastic can also be mistaken for prey and actively pursued. Species that feed on soft-bodied animals are vulnerable here. For these animals, plastic, undulating in the water column, can mimic the shape and movement of their prey. Toothed whales are a salient example. In February 2017, a Cuvier’s beaked whale was reported washed up on a beach in Norway. An autopsy revealed the whale had died of starvation, with thirty plastic bags in its stomach. Similar cases have become too numerous to track.
Entanglement is another problem. Anything can cause it, from bags to ropes to ribbon to beverage container holders: it’s a Dr. Seuss list of human castoffs. Fishing gear is especially bad; it is, after all, designed for entrapment. In an ideal world, it would capture only the targeted species at the allowable level. But this is not an ideal world. Lost gear continues to “ghost-fish,” trapping animals in a brutal form of collateral damage. It’s useless, wasteful death. “Ghost nets” are the worst of all. Before the advent of polyethylene rope, nets would eventually break down. But with durable plastic rope, they can entrap marine life for years after fishing crews have stopped hauling them up.
Humans aren’t immune, either. While the scope of plastic’s effect on our health is not fully understood, the impact of some plastics on the endocrine system — the collection of glands that acts as a communication highway to our brains — is a growing concern. Components of some plastics are known endocrine disrupters: chemicals that can mimic or block natural hormone production. One such group, known as estrogenic chemicals, has been linked to problems with learning, aggression, reproduction, and growth rates.
Bisphenol A, or BPA, may be the best-known endocrine disrupter. For many years, it was used to form hard, clear plastics ideal for products like reusable water containers, baby bottles, and linings for food cans. In 2010, Health Canada declared it a toxic substance and took it off the market after female lab mice developed egg deformities from chewing on their BPA-lined cages. It was replaced by polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. But, as it turns out, that’s also an endocrine disrupter. We may still be little better off than the mice.
Focused efforts are being made on several fronts to combat the plastic problem. Research institutions and publicly funded groups, like the 5 Gyres Institute, Exxpedition, and the Ocean Legacy Foundation, are dedicated to a range of activities, including removing plastic by hand, monitoring plastic distribution, and developing technologies. For example, the Ocean Cleanup organization is currently engineering and testing a boom deployed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with the aim of capturing plastic waste — preventing it from breaking down into microplastics while allowing organisms to swim clear. There is also research into the potential for certain bacteria to break down plastic with digestive enzymes. However, we are far from a viable solution to dealing with the plastics that already exist.
Recycling is not the panacea it was once thought to be. Last year, China, once the dumping ground for the world’s recyclable plastic waste, called a halt to all imports. This created a huge plastic backlog. Europe, the United States, and Canada offloaded their surplus onto Southeast Asian countries. But with poor waste management facilities and underdeveloped laws, those nations were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume and environmental impact of the garbage. Now they’re doing something about it. Malaysia is demanding that its allies take back a whopping 3,000 metric tonnes of their plastic waste. In June, the Philippines returned sixty-nine containers of rotting garbage to Canada. Other countries are planning to limit or eliminate plastic imports altogether: Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia.
With the odds so soundly stacked against us, it is easy to feel powerless. But there are ways to improve the odds. We can start with education; there’s a precedent here. The BBC’s Blue Planet II series was so successful in raising awareness that an incredible 88 percent of viewers reported changing their single-use-plastic habits. (It was referred to as the “Attenborough effect,” after the show’s narrator, the conservation advocate David Attenborough.) As a result of this public shift and the subsequent demand for change, the European Union announced a total ban on single-use plastics by 2021, with further reductions in other plastics to be phased in. In June, the Canadian government announced that it will match this timeline. Thanks to strong, coordinated lobby efforts, two provinces are already committed to banning single-use plastic bags: Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.
While we wait for legislative change, we can lobby industry to clean up its act. And we can use our purchasing power to send the message that we don’t want plastic-coated products. We can support universities, research institutions, and reputable environmental organizations that are looking for a range of solutions, from innovative ways to clean up plastics to replacing them with environmentally sustainable alternatives. And, of course, we can clean up our own acts, at home. We can refuse single-use plastic, reject plastic when there are alternatives, and buy clothes made of natural materials. Or, better yet, we can just buy less.
The year 2050 is heralded as the tipping point of environmental reckoning by the UN Environment Programme. It claims that by then there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills and oceans, 99 percent of all seabirds will have consumed plastic, and there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. If the world hasn’t made dramatic changes by then, it will be too late. Time will tell if we’re up to the challenge.
Quoth he, “The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.”
— The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, part 5
I have spent more than a year of the last five at sea. In fact, I am there now. Through serene calm and upending storms, endless horizons and pea soup fog, there has been me, my binoculars, and the ocean.
This morning, I spotted a large mat of kelp, torn from the coast by a recent storm and set adrift 200 kilometres from land, in the Labrador Sea. Two pieces of bright pink plastic were enmeshed in it, and a curious seabird, a northern fulmar, was checking it out. Thirty years ago, I might have been more concerned about the intrusion on my wilderness experience. Today, I am far more concerned for the fulmar.