The War on Plastic

Part I: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By Katie Zugic

Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? You’ve probably contributed to it. Also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, this area boasts an astonishing 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic – and weighs more than 80 000 tonnes. Found in a region of the Pacific between Hawaii and California, this patch is the largest of the five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world, covering 1.6 million kilometers of the Pacific Ocean – that’s three times the size of France.

The plastics that accumulate here are not solely due to pollution from these coastal regions. Rivers that innervate the interior of the continental United States and Canada leach these toxins into oceanic basins, which means that the threat of plastic pollution is an all but isolated phenomenon. More than half of the plastic running through these waterways are less dense than the water, or in other words, the plastic will not sink once it encounters the sea.

These plastics are incredibly resilient in marine environments, and their buoyancy allows them to be transported over extended distances. Converging currents guide these plastics further offshore, where they persist at sea until they accumulate in the patch. Once they arrive, they are at the mercy of the sun, wind, and waves, degrading into microplastics which marine life mistake for food.

Microplastics are not only found as a byproduct of plastic breakdown – they’re found in a majority of the self-care products we use, such as toothpaste, face wash, and body soap. Even more disturbing are the statistics: each year more than 500 billion plastic bags are produced, and 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris end up in our oceans. These microplastics bioaccumulate in the food chain, working their way up to us, and have been associated with increased rates of cancers in wildlife, as well as causing the disruption of endocrine cycles in humans.

Plastics have become “essential” to humans and are a facet of daily life and are marked by exponential increases in rates of consumption and production, so much so that plastics will leave identifiable fossil records: plastiglomerate – a “rock” holding together pieces of organic debris encased in plastic, has been turning up on beaches around the world.

Humans have an intimate relationship with oil and plastic to the extent that the term petroculture has been posited to describe the means by which fossil fuels organize society. Fossil fuels triggered the industrialization of machine and labour power, allowing profit to be extrapolated from organized labour. Humanity has become a slave to a consumerist ethos; a collective obsession with material plenty. Our dependence on the conveniences of oil is significantly impacting the climate, and anthropogenic lust for single-use material goods is driving the planet well past it’s threshold.

We, as a global population, cannot continue to consume at such an exponential rate and not expect any change within our environment. The problem of climate change—which is intimately linked to pollution, is multifaceted and requires a drastic re-evaluation of the means by which the global populace is living. The pervasive nature of humans on the planet, the mass consumption, the perpetual desire to constantly obtain more, the continuous expansion and extravagances we have become expectant of since the turn of the industrial revolution, have all had a pervasive impact on Earth.

It is impossible to deny the reality of our toxic consumption habits. If we as a species hope to save our planet, then we as a species, must ascertain a sense of unanimity and change our habits on a unified front—for climate change is impossible to fix if we continue to operate with divested interests.