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

offshore wind developers eyeing Louisiana

World's biggest offshore wind developers eyeing Louisiana for Gulf's first turbines

The Texas coast may have better winds for offshore wind development, but it’s Louisiana’s political winds that are drawing the interest of the industry’s two biggest players.
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.

Drought-resistant farming

Drought-resistant farming catching on in New Mexico

More farmers are using cover crops, soil additives and crops suitable for drip irrigation in order to weather the drought.
Norco adventure game exemplifies global warming

Mapping climate grief, one pixel at a time

Norco, an indie adventure game about an oil town menaced by global warming, is a striking contribution to American landscape art.
selling more electric cars in America

The simplest way to sell more electric cars in America

Decades-old laws that protect car dealers are keeping the U.S. stuck in the gas-powered past.
Arctic oil barges go aground in icy Kara Sea

Major disaster averted in icy Kara Sea after two oil barges ran aground

Russia’s Marine Rescue Service describes the unprecedented salvage operation as "extremely difficult" as ice was rapidly building up on the structures of the barges in the freezing cold polar night.

climate causes energy conocophillips
Photo by Esse Chua on Unsplash

ConocoPhillips’ plan for extracting half-a-billion barrels of crude in Alaska’s fragile Arctic presents a defining moment for Joe Biden

After the Trump administration rushed through the Willow Project in its waning days, a federal judge temporarily halted development pending additional review. Environmentalists want Biden to kill Willow once and for all.

climate data research
Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

Lisa Goddard, 55, dies; brought climate data to those who needed it

Lisa Goddard helped show government agencies around the world how to predict upcoming droughts, flooding and other extreme weather events.

From our Newsroom
Africa cooking pollution

What do new cookstoves in Ghana and air conditioners in NYC have in common? Energy justice.

Combating energy poverty and energy insecurity are critical elements to achieving environmental health equity for billions worldwide.

dr. fauci

Peter Dykstra: Life imitates climate politics—again.

Personal, misinformed attacks on Dr. Fauci are reminiscent of climate spats over the decades.

Don't look up climate change

Hollywood’s third strike on climate change?

"Don't Look Up" is ambitious—but trips over its subject matter.

environmental news

5 popular reads from our newsroom in 2021

Check out what sparked readers' interest over the past year.

journalism

Our top 5 long reads of 2021

Check out must-read, in-depth reporting from the past year.

butterfly

Our top 5 good news stories of 2021

It's not all doom and gloom.

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