Plastic captivates us. It can be molded and shaped into almost anything. It’s cheap to produce (and therefore cheap to buy). For that reason, we have surrounded ourselves with plastic: from our razors to our detergent bottles to our morning coffee cups. Plastic is useful for critical medical items and for other uses, but unfortunately, manufacturers design most plastic products to be single-use. We discard our plastic water bottle or grocery bag to make way for the next one, forgetting where these items come from—or where they might end up.
The Earth, however, cannot forget.
Plastic production has increased dramatically since its introduction. In 1960, annual plastic production stood just under 9 million tons. By 2020, that figure had ballooned to 367 million tons. Tragically, out of all the plastic ever created, less than 10% has actually been recycled. Where has the rest gone? In Washington, a small amount gets burned and the rest goes to landfills, or ends up polluting our oceans and lands.
Plastic is a unique material, presenting specific challenges to our environment and our fight to reduce the impacts of climate change. Plastic is extremely durable and some plastic products literally save people’s lives. On the other hand, the dirty truth is that plastics are made of toxic chemicals, their full life cycle contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate climate change, and these single-use products are needlessly piling up in our landfills and waters.
Plastics are a petrochemical product, made from oil and gas. Manufacturers add complex chemicals (additives, fillers, etc.) to plastic to be able to mold it into everyday products. These chemicals include:
When a plastic product is exposed to the elements (particularly sun), it slowly degrades. While it may take hundreds or even thousands of years for these plastic products to fully break down, in the meantime, it breaks apart into tiny particles and fibers called microplastics. Less than 5 millimeters in size, these microplastics find their way into our soil, our air, and our water. Everyday activities, from washing your clothes to driving your car (with particles wearing off of tires), can release microplastics.
As the plastic products degrade, they can also release their toxic chemicals into the environment. Furthermore, plastic containers can absorb chemicals from the pesticides and personal care products that they are meant to hold. These in turn can also be released as the containers make their way to the ocean as litter. And the plastic pieces can act as sponges and soak up toxic chemicals in our rivers and ocean. These can also be released as the plastics continue to break down. For example, a study conducted in Vancouver, British Columbia, found copper and lead enter the Salish Sea by hitchhiking with plastic pollution. By pairing up together, these pollutants deal a one-two punch to our ecosystems and the species that depend on them.
Microplastics are small enough to travel through the soil, wind, and water and find their way into some unexpected places. Recently, scientists identified microplastics high up on the slopes of the “pristine” French Alps. They found wind currents facilitate microplastic transport over great distances, increasing the risk of these pollutants reaching more distal and remote parts of the planet.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the ocean. Microplastics have likely been in the ocean since the beginning of mass plastic production. Most plastic enters the ocean through landfills, river run-off, and beach litter, and some through fishing activity. Microplastics of many different sizes, shapes, colors, and chemical properties have ended up in the Pacific Ocean and its tributaries, along with high volumes of microplastic fibers (like those in synthetic fabrics).
“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).”
―World Economic Forum
In Washington, microplastics pose a significant risk to our aquatic habitats. When scientists tested the Snake and Lower Columbia Rivers, 92.8% of their nets came back with microplastics. Studies by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance found that 100% of samples collected from Puget Sound in 2018 and 2019 contained microplastics (Puget Soundkeeper). While much of what washes up on our outer coast comes from far away and may even be some of our own wastes that were exported and dumped in other countries, in the Salish Sea, “[m]ost… debris on beaches is generated within the region.” While frustrating, this also means we have the power to prevent plastics from trashing our Sound.
Plastic waste threatens the many creatures that call our waters home, including iconic species like salmon, orcas, and puffins. In some cases, wildlife can become entangled and be injured or drowned by plastic waste. In other cases, plastics are confused for food and directly eaten, resulting in malnutrition and death. This accidental ingestion is having a huge impact on our birds: locally, a research team at the University of Puget Sound studying two species of seabirds found that 99% of northern fulmars and 50% of sooty shearwaters had plastic in their guts. Po-Chien Chen’s animated short “Selfish” (2019) gives us a good visualization of this effect:
In addition to entanglement and ingestion, chemicals found in plastics also pose a significant threat when they enter the food chain. In a process called “bioaccumulation,” these toxic chemicals work their way through the food web, wreaking havoc along the way. For example, zooplankton form the basis of our marine food web. When these tiny organisms eat microplastic, those toxic chemicals can be transferred to the baitfish that eats the zooplankton, then to the salmon that eats the baitfish, and finally to the orca that eats the salmon. The end result is that our top predators contain significant levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies, even if they never directly consume any plastic.
We’ve found microplastics in the guts of even young salmon and adult Chinook. Scientists estimate that adults can consume up to 91 particles of plastic every day. This is troubling since Chinook are the favorite food of our resident orcas. As a result, orcas in the Salish Sea consume high levels of flame retardants and other pollutants that stem from nearby cities and factories. Recent studies on other aquatic species shows that eating microplastics can affect growth and behavior. The presence of these toxic chemicals in our ocean threatens many species already at risk from development, habitat loss, and climate change.
“Due to the ubiquity of PCBs in the environment, it is difficult to differentiate bioaccumulation via plastic from bioaccumulation via the foodweb…”
―Rochman, et al.
While we have a good understanding of the harm caused by microplastics in our water, more research is needed to understand the impacts to land-based wildlife. Part of the challenge of understanding these impacts comes from the fact that it’s hard to know where the problem is coming from. Microplastics contain harmful chemicals that can leach into the environment, but they can also absorb other harmful chemicals that come from other sources. Although it’s not always easy to understand how these toxins are moving around in our environment, research shows the damage is felt not just by wildlife, but by the very soil and plants we depend on.
And similarly with humans. Every day, we may consume microplastics that were first eaten by fish or absorbed through the roots of our vegetables. And while the danger this exposure might pose to humans cells is not fully understood, we know that many of these chemicals can affect the growth and development of young children. One new revelation is that babies are being born with microplastics already in their systems, delivered through the placenta while still in the womb. In Washington, tribal populations rely on traditional foods, which include larger amounts of fish. People living in coastal communities often eat more fish as well. For both groups, the risks from plastic and the chemicals in plastic may be greater.
Despite the growing body of research and public awareness about the threats plastic poses to our health, our communities, and our planet, we continue to make more of it every year. These plastics break down and are carried by wind and currents to every corner of the earth— from the highest peaks to the deepest parts of the ocean. This is a global problem that connects us all— what we do here in Washington has impact within and beyond our communities. That’s why we need to work towards a circular economy in which we design more plastic-free products while effectively recycling the products we do make.