Fifty-year-old Frenchman Ben Lecomte is a man on a mission. In early June, he set out from Japan on what will be – if he's successful – the world's first trans-Pacific swim. The goal of his 8,000km journey? To call attention to one of the foremost global environmental threats of our time: plastic pollution in our oceans.
Lecomte is certainly not the first to sound the alarm over the problem. Media channels increasingly feature heart-breaking images of dying marine mammals, entangled birds, and trash-strewn beaches. Governments and environmental campaigners are starting to issue sterner calls for change. The love affair we have had with plastic since the 1940s has clearly turned sour.
Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced around the world each year, about eight million finds its way into our oceans, mostly blown or washed in from land. It is akin to having one garbage truck emptied into the sea every minute.
Recent research suggests that the situation may be even more dire than previously thought. A UK government report issued in early 2018 predicted that the amount of plastic in the world's oceans would triple within the coming decade. And the World Economic Forum has estimated that, come 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans, by weight, than fish.
More bad news comes from the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a much-studied section of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre between California and Hawaii where converging currents cause debris to accumulate.
“We use that as a canary in the coal mine for the amount of plastic that's getting into the oceans,” explains marine ecologist Dr Linsey Haram, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
A survey completed earlier this year estimated that the patch, which is over twice the size of France, contains 79,000 tonnes of ocean plastic, up to 16 times higher than previously reported.
“It's a huge amount,” she says. “It's not just that we have plastics out there in the ocean, junking things up. They're actually being eaten and entering the food web, which can have huge implications.”
In addition to being at risk of entanglement, fish, birds, and other marine species often ingest plastic items, leading to stomach blockage and starvation. Due to their unusual longevity, the larger pieces of plastic have also been found to be a viable mechanism for coastal species invasion, Haram says.
These are only the effects of the plastic items that are large enough to see. “Plastics can take hundreds of years to break down,” Haram notes. “And even so, it's not as if they're disintegrating and becoming part of the natural substrate or sediment. They're just breaking down into smaller and smaller fragments.”
The extremely small fragments, dubbed micro-plastics, are both toxic and widespread. Separate studies have recently found them prevalent in the deepest ocean trenches as well as in Arctic ice.
“Wherever we look, we're finding micro-plastics. It's now unfortunately part of the fabric of all these ecosystems,” says Dr David Santillo, Senior Scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories, which studies the distribution and chemical composition of micro-plastics.
Santillo notes that, in addition to the chemical signature of plastic – the mixture of polymers, additives, and stabilising agents, leftover from their production – micro-plastics can also carry high concentrations of pollutants they pick up from their environment. “[Plastic] will act as an accumulator, a sponge if you like, soaking up other contaminants from the water around it.” These can include chemicals from things like pesticides and flame retardants as well as toxic metals.
As these compounds make their way up the food chain, Santillo says, the health risks they pose to wildlife, and inevitably to humans, is still unknown.
Clean-up projects, recycling schemes, bans on plastic bags, and research into new technologies are all activities designed to mitigate the plastic crisis. They are gaining pace as the danger becomes more apparent. Governments are increasingly stepping in. As many as fifty nations have now made moves to reduce plastic pollution, according to the UN, and the European Commission has proposed new rules to target single-use plastic products in the EU. Experts warn, however, that far more needs to be done given the scale of the problem.
Haram believes that, because plastic pollution is a global issue, it will take nothing less than international cooperation to solve it. A good place to start, she says, would be tackling the waste management deficiencies found in many countries, which would go a long way in keeping the trash from reaching the oceans.
“I think there is potential on the government level to really put things into action in different countries. I think it's just a matter of educating people about the problem because not everybody knows that this is going on,” she says.
Santillo, for his part, emphasises the need for a more fundamental rethink on the human-plastic relationship.
“In the end, if you just treat this as something you need to clean up from the environment, you're in a losing battle. You've got to look at how we're using plastic, how it's getting into the waste stream, and what we can do in terms of redesigning products and packaging so we're not creating this problem in the first place,” he emphasises.
“There's no one single solution. It's got to be a combination of different things,” says Santillo. Changing people's mindsets about a material they've been taught was “disposable” is one. He advocates reduction and then bringing whatever plastic remains into the circular economy “just like with steel, aluminium and glass where we've had a long-term culture of collecting and recycling. We don't have that at the moment for plastic. That's what's got to change.”
It's clear that major shifts in policies, economies, and habits will have to be undertaken if there's to be reversal in the war on plastic. The big question for ocean health is how fast that can get done.