Humans have irreversibly altered Earth in many ways, but one of our longest-lasting legacies will always be our invention of plastics. Plastics are cheap, durable, and easy to produce. They’re both a blessing and a curse, and plastic waste has piled up in every corner of the globe. Because most of our planet is covered with water, a huge portion of our plastic waste ends up in Earth’s oceans, but you might not realize it by taking a weekend fishing trip. A new report from Vox, inspired by a New Yorker article titled Where Does All The Plastic Go?, offers some insights into the life of plastics after we deem them no longer useful.
You’ve probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a massive area in the Pacific Ocean where plastic waste in all shapes and sizes tends to congregate. What you might not realize is that this most famous garbage patch is just one of many and that the plastic that accumulates in these patches is just a tiny fraction of the plastic waste that is in our world’s largest bodies of water.
Researchers have been hard at work investigating the final resting place of plastics for years. Laurent Lebreton is one of those scientists and has led studies on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He’s become something of a specialist in discovering where the “hidden” plastic waste is actually going, and evidence he and his team have collected paint a clear and disturbing picture.
Of all the plastic that ends up in the oceans, only about 1% of it remains afloat in areas like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sediment samples from the seafloor have shown that microplastics are have been piling up down there for decades, with the invention and widespread use of plastic leading to a boom in the amount of tiny plastic particles that show up in sediment samples from over half a century ago. The upward trend shows no signs of slowing down.
Another huge percentage of plastic waste ends up in large pieces at the bottom of the ocean. Plastics tend to float, but when microorganisms and larger creatures like barnacles use them as homes, they can eventually sink. The seafloor is relatively calm, especially when the water is very deep, so when something like a plastic bucket falls all the way down to the bottom it can remain there, undisturbed, for decades.
Perhaps not surprising to anyone that has visited a beach in the past two decades, the researchers believe that the largest concentration of plastic waste is actually closer to shore. Plastics that wash up on beaches, become embedded in the shoreline or collect in isolated areas close to land. It’s these areas where environmental groups attempt to make their biggest impact, picking up the waste before it can be swept out to sea once more.
The video does a great job of explaining it in even more detail, so I suggest you watch it.