Plastic is everywhere: bottles, toys, cars, and, increasingly, in the ocean and its inhabitants. At National Geographic, Laura Parker takes a close look at the dramatic increase in our plastic production over the last half-decade and our profound global failure to properly deal with its disposal. This isn’t just about fish strangling in discarded six-pack rings — its about waterways so clogged with plastic that you can walk across them, and not Jesus-style.
No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. Imagine five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, Jambeck says, sitting on every foot of coastline around the world—that would correspond to about 8.8 million tons, her middle-of-the-road estimate of what the ocean gets from us annually. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.
Getting plastics out of our water isn’t just a matter of producing less disposable plastic, which is unlikely anyway — it’s also an issue of waste management, and making sure the plastic we do create is properly destroyed or recycled. Unfortunately, the countries producing the most plastic are also those least able to deal with its long tail.
In recent years the surge in production has been driven largely by the expanded use of disposable plastic packaging in the growing economies of Asia—where garbage collection systems may be underdeveloped or nonexistent. In 2010, according to an estimate by Jambeck, half the world’s mismanaged plastic waste was generated by just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.
“Let’s say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe,” says Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University who also works in his native India. “You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste.”