Peter Dykstra:  The 800-lb (cheap, plastic) gorilla in our oceans

Decades of warnings. A global environmental threat. Climate change isn't the only mess we're ignoring.

Save for one word, Walter Brooke (1914-1986) had an unremarkable career as a Hollywood bit player, usually as a mid-level military officer fighting Indians or Nazis.


But in the 1967 film The Graduate, Brooke slung his arm around the shoulder of a young Dustin Hoffman and offered a vision of the future:

'Plastics'

"Plastics"

Half a century later, Brooke's career advice looks more and more like an albatross around the necks of humanity – and for that matter, around the necks of albatrosses.

In 1950, 17 years before Brooke's career counsel, the world produced an estimated two million metric tons of plastic. By 2015, that had jumped to 380 million metric tons – more than humanity's own weight in plastic.

'Smog' of plastic

Trash floating in Lake Jackson, south of Atlanta, after a rain

www.11alive.com

An estimated 150 million metric tons of plastic now swirl in our waterways:

  • abandoned, miles-long driftnets that ensnare fish and seabirds;
  • drink bottles and soccer balls washed down storm sewers into rivers and lakes (see this news clip of runoff plastic in Lake Jackson, downstream from a half-million or so metro Atlanta homes);
  • single-use bags, straws, cups and cigarette filters by the billions;
  • long-lasting microbeads of plastic built into soaps and detergents;
  • and partly decomposed plastic bits that cloud the water and clog the bellies of fish, birds and marine mammals – a veritable "smog of the sea."

40+ years of warnings

Marine litter spoiling the view in Norway.

Bo Eide/Flickr

You can't say we weren't warned.

On April 5, 1989, a team of NOAA scientists presented an ominous, peer-reviewed work on the mounting dangers of ocean-borne plastic debris. Not surprisingly, their warnings went unheeded by all but a handful of marine scientists and activists.

I was feeling good about myself finding the 30 year-old plastics paper, and I mentioned it in the weekly segment I do for Public Radio International's Living On Earth.Then, the sleuths at a very useful web publication called The Revelator found others from the 1970's. That's how long we've known about the crisis we've been building.

Ugly death by plastic

Darrell Blatchley, director of D'Bone Collector Museum Inc., pulls plastic waste from the stomach of a Cuvier's beaked whale that washed ashore in Compostela Valley, in the Philippines.

AFP/Getty Images

Last week, an item worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records washed in from the Philippines, where the carcass of a Cuvier's beaked whale (really more an oversized dolphin than a great whale) yielded 88 pounds of plastic bags.

Like so many other environmental ills, the plastic pollution of the oceans is something we've known about for decades. Like climate change or ocean acidification, the solutions to plastics pollution are daunting. They don't involve the shutting of a lone drainpipe or smokestack. They involve altering the consumptive mindsets of nearly all of us about how we produce, consume, and dispose of plastics.

We've developed the ability to alter the acid/alkaline chemistry of the vast oceans, and we're filling them up with things inimical to life. Now all we have to do is develop the ability to stop ourselves.

***

Here's a trailer from "The Smog of the Sea," a new documentary on ocean plastics featuring musician Jack Johnson

Azerbaijani government criticized for silencing media ahead of climate summit

Azerbaijan faces accusations of suppressing media and activists as it prepares to host the UN Cop29 climate talks in November.

Fiona Harvey reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

FERC authorizes Mountain Valley Pipeline operations

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has approved Equitrans Midstream Corp. to commence operations on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, concluding years of regulatory and legal challenges.

Catherine Morehouse reports for POLITICO.

Keep reading...Show less

Copper recycling increases as demand soars

Copper manufacturers in Montreal are boosting recycling efforts to meet rising demand.

Jennifer McDermott reports for The Associated Press.

Keep reading...Show less

GOP accuses Wall Street firms of climate collusion

House Republicans released a report accusing major investment firms of colluding with climate groups to push for environmentally friendly investing, sparking a new controversy over ESG practices.

Rachel Frazin reports for The Hill.

Keep reading...Show less
toxic urban oilfields
Credit: Brook Lenker/FracTracker Alliance/Flickr

Toxic gas leaks from Texas oil fields continue unchecked

In Texas, thousands of residents are exposed to dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide from oil and gas wells, with regulators failing to address the health risks.

Will Evans, Caroline Ghisolfi, and Amanda Drane report for The Examination.

Keep reading...Show less

Clean air and water amendment delayed in California

A proposed amendment to California’s Constitution that would guarantee the right to clean air and water has been postponed for another year due to a lack of legislative progress.

Hayley Smith reports for The Los Angeles Times.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
planetary health diet

This diet will likely keep you alive longer — and help the planet

New research finds the Planetary Health Diet lowers our risk to most major causes of death.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Jose Ramon Becerra Vera on democratizing science

“In their own way, they’re becoming experts, not just of their experiences but also of the data collection process.”

The oil and gas industry’s radioactive problem: Q&A with Justin Nobel

The oil and gas industry’s radioactive problem: Q&A with Justin Nobel

“Of all the levels of radium in produced water or brine around the world that I’ve looked at, I have encountered none that are consistently as high as what comes out of the Marcellus Shale.”

environmental justice pittsburgh

Environmental justice advocates find hope, healing and community in Pittsburgh

Advocates and researchers gathered to not only discuss ongoing fights but victories, self-care and cautious optimism about the path ahead.

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