By 2050, Our Oceans Will Hold More Plastic Than Fish

Posted on in Healthy Living by Linda Summersea


There’s a famous line in the 1967 film The Graduate in which Mr. McGuire gives Benjamin Braddock one word of advice regarding his future.

McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics.

At the time, it seemed significant only in that the advent of plastics would revolutionize product development worldwide, by making things cheaper, less fragile, and longer-lasting.

We would no longer use breakable glass milk bottles. Food would keep fresher in plastics instead of paper cartons. Sandwiches could be wrapped in plastic instead of wax paper. Combs, dolls, cups, eating utensils. Soon, the moldable characteristics of plastics meant that they could substitute for just about anything. And they did.

Plastic was long-lasting beyond our wildest dreams. Even when a plastic product became damaged, it was still plastic. It would last forever—450 years for the average plastic bottle, and some even 1,000 years. Not to mention the more than 1.5 million gallons of oil used to produce plastic bottles alone every year.

We’ve created a monster.

Now a recent report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that by the year 2050, the weight of plastics in the world’s oceans will surpass the weight of its fish.

If you visit a seacoast anywhere, this will not surprise you. We’ve known for a long time that there’s a collection of plastic called the Pacific trash vortex. It’s estimated to be at least the size of Texas—and by some reports, much larger—and it gathers more plastics every day.

I’ve been traveling to a small country in the Caribbean since 1990. In the early years, there was the usual seaweed washing ashore, with bits and pieces of plastics scattered here and there. This was before the sale of water in plastic bottles.

If only we could go back in time! Remember when water in plastic bottles was first marketed as a trendy, upscale product? Spring water. Healthy water.

When sales caught on, marketers realized that they could put any kind of water in plastic bottles and it would sell. Even city tap water. Why would we need to buy such a thing? A trendy item soon became a bad habit to break.

Each year, I saw a little more plastic mixed in with the driftwood on the beaches. Resorts hired men whose sole job was to rake up the plastic-embedded seaweed and cart it off into the jungle. I found it depressing to think that these men were going to work in the brutal Caribbean sun every day on a task that would never go away. Optimistically, one might say that jobs were being created—but the debris just kept coming.

In a spirit of encouragement, I would occasionally joke with these men that they were winning their war against the plastics. But we all knew I was mistaken.

This year, there was a strong storm in the western Caribbean. There was a lot of beach erosion, and worse—a massive amount of plastic-embedded seaweed washed ashore. The beach where I normally rode my bicycle several miles to town along was now impassable due to this seaweed. The plastics created a hazardous path of debris.

I began to photograph the plastics, wanting to identify the contents. I spoke with the men raking up the plastics. Everyone was depressed about the situation but determined in their attempt to fight back against the ocean full of ugly broken plastics that won’t stop coming. Plastic cups, plastic spoons and forks, empty motor oil containers, water bottles (the worst!), Crocs, flip-flops, plastic bags, television remotes, screw caps, toothbrushes, diapers, toys, fishing line, fishing nets, sun visors, and more.

Some resorts realized that attempting to rake up the plastic-embedded seaweed is a Herculean task that is never going to end. For the first time, they were giving up the concept of beaches where you could walk into the water for a refreshing swim.

Sandbags were being laid down along the shore to make shallow seawalls at some resorts. Men were covering the sandbags with rocks to disguise the plastic sandbags. The seaweed and its plastic contents would now float offshore on the other side of the walls. Out of sight, but not out of mind. Surely, the floating accumulation of plastics on the other side of the seawall will grow larger and larger, eventually settling into coral reefs and being consumed by fish and other sea life.

Now that plastics in the ocean have reached epic proportions, we need to rethink our plastic use. We need to quit our plastic habit and recycle the plastics that we have. Less than 10% of plastics are currently being recycled. This is outrageous and sad.

Municipalities need to follow the lead of the tiny town of Bundanoon, Australia, which in 2009 became the first town in the world to ban plastic water bottles as environmentally bad and immoral.

As individuals, we need to examine every plastic item that we come in contact with in our daily life and find a non-plastic substitute. Prior to the 1960s, we used paper bags, leather and natural fiber shoes, cotton and wool clothing, and glass bottles. We can do it again.

It’s going to take years to recover, but if we each do our part, we can hold the plastic at bay, and we just might be able to save this planet. Let’s try.

Linda Summersea is the author of The Girl with the Black and Blue Doll: A Not-VeryDepressing Memoir of Childhood Depression and is currently tackling the editing process. In addition to writing, she is an avid hiker and traveler.

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