If someone told you plastic littered the world's beaches, you'd probably say "I know" and shake your head and acknowledge how terribly sad it is, and then move on to talking about something else. A real-life Facebook feed of conversation topics flowing through one moment to the next. But until you see the plastic mountains with your own eyes, until you walk through its remains, crunching and snapping beneath your feet, it's nearly impossible to believe the severity of it all.
Plodding through plastic is something I do every year, right around this same time, while working on a project on the Bay Islands of Honduras. On one side, where the beach is cleaned for tourists, the random, scattered few pieces of plastic left behind is depressing enough. But on the other, a spot met by heavy trade winds and only a smattering of tourists, plastic remains form a never-ending kaleidoscope of colors across the coastline. Faded bottles of shampoo, motor oil, water, and hair gel create a deep debris ridge along with plastic forks, knives, and spoons and kids' toys left behind.
This isn't just on the Bay Islands. This is true for all beaches across the world. As Minnesota's March Mass Exodus (™) is finally underway, thousands of us will be taking to beaches to escape the cold and chase the sun until spring finally makes its way north. At 4am on a Saturday, the MSP airport is full of itchy travelers, lines snaking from end to end, a sea of white legs on their way to warmer climates like the Bahamas or the Caribbean or Mexico.
It's easy to appeciate the "pristine" beauty of these remote locales. But mostly becasue the beaches are cleaned every day for the throng of tourists. In other words, just because you never see the plastics mixing with the sand doesn't mean it hasn't been there. Plastic is taking over coastlines everywhere.
And only recently have scientists been able to figure out just how much plastic is in the oceans. From a February 15 story in Science Magazine.
It took nearly a half-century, but scientists finally have a handle on how much plastic enters the open ocean every year. The last estimate was in 1975, when a National Academy of Sciences study hazarded a guess that about 0.1% of global plastic production sweeps out to sea annually. Now, researchers say reality is much grimmer.
The team looked at how much plastic waste every coastal country in the world produces and estimated how much of it could potentially spill into the sea because it ends up as litter or in open dumps and leaky landfills. The scientists figured roughly 15% to 40% of that littered or dumped plastic enters the ocean each year. Adding together all 192 countries in the world with a significant coastal population, the researchers report online today in Science that about 4 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic washed offshore in 2010 alone, or about 1.5% to 4.5% of the world’s total plastic production—enough to cover every foot of coastline on the planet. http://ecowatch.com/2014/04/07/22-facts-plastic-pollution-10-things-can-do-about-it/
That’s just the beginning of the problems, the team says, as scientists still don’t know where more than 99% of ocean plastic debris ends up—and what impact it’s having on marine life and the human food supply. What’s more, the authors predict that the annual amount of plastic waste tumbling out to sea will more than double in the next 10 years.
To put it into perspective, 12 million metric tons is the equivalent of more than 26 billion pounds. All over the world, beach clean-ups help rid the onslaught of plastic. But "cleaning it up" doesn't remove the problem in the first place.
According to the L.A. Times:
By some estimates, 46,000 pieces of plastic trash float in every square mile of ocean. Massive quantities of the waste, often tinier than salt grains, have created huge "garbage patches" in ocean gyres, giant dead spots formed by currents and winds that push trash toward the becalmed centers. One of those, the Eastern Garbage Patch, midway between Hawaii and California, is estimated to be twice the size of Texas.
These things are hard to think about when you're on vacation, toes in warm, white sand, fancy, frozen island drink in hand. But it's a heartbreaking, sobering reality we contribute to every day. In the States, the average American throws away 185 pounds of plastic a year.
Recycling is one step. But we can also work to refuse plastic. Starting with refusing the plastic cup and drinking straw for those fancy island drinks. And the plastic forks. And plates. And water bottles.