plastic pollution beach

Our plastic planet

It's always a challenge to find good news on the climate and environment beat. And we all desperately need a little more of the upbeat stuff right now.


So I apologize in advance for the following.

It's hard to ignore the looming mountain of plastics problems. Plastic pollution has been hiding in plain sight as the next eco-calamity for decades. With climate change teed up as the major global environmental challenge, let's take stock of another modern crisis.

Plastic nurdles. (Credit: Greenpeace Polska/flickr)

Nurdle alert! My first encounter with nurdles was on what should have been a pristine Costa Rican beach in 1986. The lentil-sized, grayish pellets spread the sands for miles, along with a stunning number of shoes. I never figured out the source of the shoe spill, but nurdles eventually became a headline-maker in the oceans world.

Nurdles are the feedstock for much of the world's production of plastics products. If plastic things were pancakes, nurdles would be the batter. They're spilled from trucks, boxcars, and in the case of the Costa Rican beach, apparently a container ship. There are no firm statistics on how many spills there have been, or how many hundred of billions of virtually indestructible nurdles litter our beaches and seafloors.

One example: in 2017, 600 volunteers scoured 279 U.K. beaches, reporting that two-thirds of them were "littered" with nurdles.

We do know that nurdle pollution is the tip of the plastic pollution sh*tberg.

Let's talk recycling. For years, much of what we think of as recycled plastic was collected in communities and eventually shipped to Asia. In 2018, the People's Republic of China formally announced that they'd officially had it. Imports of recyclable plastic had choked China's landfills beyond reason. Early, rudimentary successes with recycled goods had run their course. But we reached Peak Flip-Flop, and China's National Sword initiative slammed the door, barring plastic waste imports from the U.S. and about two dozen industrialized nations.

Most of our plastic goes to the landfill. In 1960 the U.S. sent roughly 390 tons of plastic waste to landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2017, the most recent year there is data for, that number shot to 26,820 tons, which is about nine times more than was recycled. Yikes.

Part of this is driven by the market to make plastics: the U.S. fracking boom caused an abundance of cheap natural gas and oil. By mid-2019, it was cheaper to make new plastic than it was to recycle the old stuff.

Here are some other quick facts to put a damper on your day:

  • In 2018, Norwegian researchers reported an enormous rise of plastic particles found in Arctic wildlife as well as similar increases of plastic particles in melting Arctic sea ice.
  • A 2019 Scripps study of sediments in California's Santa Barbara Basin shows deposits of plastic have doubled every 15 years since the end of World War II.
  • Microplastics are of increasing concern in farm soils, including those placed there intentionally as seed coatings, artificial mulch, and more. Yes, intentionally.
  • In June of this year, a Utah State University researcher reported finding at least 1,000 tons of microplastics in 11 remote locations in the American West, including Grand Canyon National Park and Joshua Tree National Monument. The researcher suggested that "plastic deposition" in such remote places could mean we're bathing in it, even when we're miles from water.

We know the problem has been building for years, and the paths to solutions are often blocked by the fossil fuel industry, which sees salvation in plastics production as its other marquee products fade.

While we all rightly call for leaders to address, and in some cases just acknowledge, the climate crisis, let's also remember to skip the straws and question those that keep pumping plastic out into our planet.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo credit: Bo Eide/flickr

While climate change remains environmental issue #1, the worries over plastic in our water, soil, food, and bodies continue to grow.

Urban heat officers face rising temperatures - and expectations

The “insidious” impact of extreme heat is challenging cities to find cross-disciplinary solutions.
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

As Himalayan glaciers melt, a water crisis looms in South Asia

Warmer air is thinning most of the vast mountain range’s glaciers, known as the Third Pole because they contain so much ice. The melting could have far-reaching consequences for flood risk and for water security for a billion people who rely on meltwater for their survival.

Live near water? Get flood insurance, FEMA admin says after Ian

“Just because you’re not required to buy flood insurance doesn’t mean you don’t have the option to buy it.”

Bitcoin climate impact greater than gold mining, study shows

Environmental damage of producing cryptocurrency averages 35% of its market value over past five years.

This campus takes “learning environment” literally

At the University of the District of Columbia, sustainable infrastructure is part of the educational experience.

In a first, U.S. appoints a diplomat for plants and animals

For the first time, the United States is designating a special diplomat to advocate for global biodiversity amid what policymakers here and overseas increasingly recognize as an extinction crisis.

From our Newsroom
Chemical recycling grows  along with concerns of its impacts

Chemical recycling grows — along with concerns about its environmental impacts

Industry says chemical recycling could solve the plastic waste crisis, but environmental advocates and some lawmakers are skeptical.

Failure of the universities: The culture gap is now near lethal

Universities are failing us

Our educational systems are failing to prepare people for existential environmental threats

Shell's new petrochemical complex in southwestern Pennsylvania

The Titans of Plastic

Pennsylvania becomes the newest sacrifice zone for America’s plastic addiction.

Ruth Greenspan Bell: Wealth and the climate dilemma

Ruth Greenspan Bell: Wealth and the climate dilemma

Developing countries that increase their fossil fuel production are at a crossroads: securing their own long-term well-being or earning revenue to finance programs to support immediate economic growth.

Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

Curbing pollution for families in Chicago calms the climatic conditions that drive fish away from puffins half a continent away.

puffin tern recovery climate change

Good news: A good year for puffins and terns, despite climate change

A visit to a remote Maine island finds puffins and terns rebounding despite climate change

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.