In 1997, famed oceanographer Charles Moore launched an expedition to explore the waters between Hawaii and California. The area in question had been historically ignored by other sailors and fishermen, as the ocean currents tended to drive away marine life, creating what was thought to be a blue, watery desert. Nonetheless, he was interested to see what, if anything, he might find in the supposedly barren seas. Stretching from horizon to horizon, covering an area the size of Texas, were plastic bottles, crates, old fishing gear and tiny sparkling slivers of trash floating innocently on the ocean’s surface. He had stumbled upon the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The world runs on plastic. As one of the most flexible, durable and ultimately useful substances ever created, it is indispensable to every aspect of modern life. From laptops to clothing, we use plastic everywhere - manufacturing an estimated 300 million tonnes each year. Of all that plastic, it’s estimated that only around 10 per cent of it is recycled for a second use. That’s 270 million tonnes that get thrown away to sit in landfill or drift on the ocean currents. Given that it takes around 1,000 years for plastic to naturally decompose, this rapidly-growing rubbish pile is fast becoming a problem.
While landfills full of shopping bags and bottles may be unsightly, it turns out that we have far more pressing plastic concerns. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, though alarming, is actually just the tip of the ocean’s plastic iceberg. Scientists estimate that between five and 13 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year and that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the water than fish. Though this may initially seem like little more than superficial damage, scientists have recently unearthed the unappetising truth. It’s now clear that plastic has begun to make its way into our food.
The problem is not with the immediately obvious threats of six-pack rings and fishing line, but with the plastic pieces that we can’t see. Microplastics, measuring between 10 nanometres to five millimetres in length, infect every sea around the world with an all-but-invisible cloud of chemical waste. Originating from commonplace products such as transportation pellets and the notorious microbeads found in toothpaste and cleaning supplies, it is these tiny fragments that spell disaster for the food chain.
Microplastics affect every level of the marine ecosystem. Scientists believe that there are now five trillion pieces floating in a thin plastic soup below the waves. These individual fragments can con plankton, fish and even whales into believing that they are food. Once eaten, they sit in the animals’ guts - either slowly poisoning them or blocking their digestive tracts, leading them to starve to death. The world was recently shocked by tragic images of a dead pilot whale - killed by over 80 bin bags lodged in its lower intestine. Of course, any infected animal that gets eaten also affects their predator, passing the plastic up the food chain. As the plastics make their way up, eventually they make it to us.
Even though we spend our entire lives surrounded by plastic, we have little idea exactly how damaging it can be. Having studied the impact that it has had on other animals, scientists have a few clues as to where our consumption could lead. Research has shown that plastics coated in polythene - the substance used to make plastic bags - and heavy metals can cause significant liver damage to fish and other organisms. Though it’s difficult to establish exactly how humans are affected, since people can’t be made to eat plastic, it seems safe to assume that if it’s bad news for other animals, it’s bad news for us.
Part of the problem with determining the damage we’re doing is the sheer variety of plastics we’re pumping into the ocean. Many industries use a wealth of different materials made from different chemicals that all fall under the plastic umbrella, which can produce a range of different reactions. While some may be relatively harmless, others may be highly toxic. The scale and diversity of the plastic soup means that we’re playing Russian roulette with every mouthful of seafood.
Though it’s difficult to grasp exactly how grave the situation actually is, the prognosis does not look good. Recently, scientists at Ghent University in Belgium revealed that anyone who regularly eats shellfish is actually consuming up to 11,000 plastic fragments every year. A similar UK-based study revealed that around one-third of all British fish also contained plastic. Though research is still in its early stages, a growing number of global studies have revealed a worrying worldwide trend. It’s becoming all too clear that ocean-based microplastic is an issue for anyone who eats fish.
As any environmentalist knows, the planet is under attack from every angle. From fossil fuels to overfishing, the natural world seems to be permanently on the brink of disaster. With all the headline-grabbing catastrophes that constantly compete for the limelight, it’s easy to overlook some of the more understated issues looming on the horizon. As our plastic problem continues to go unchecked, it seems that it may be these small-scale crises that finally finish us off.