Where Plastics Go to Kill

Beware the revenge of the nurdles.

Photo: Jacob Hallaska/Aurora

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


IT’S AN OIL SPILL. Only solid, and far more deadly. The average liquid spill of petroleum will kill marine life for a year, maybe 10. But it could take 400 years for that petroleum-based six-pack ring holding your beer to break down. Each year, undegraded plastic chokes to death some 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals, manatees, plus an unknown number of sea turtles and about 2 million birds. And once it has broken down, it becomes deadlier still.

Four hundred years is about how long the word “plastic” has been in the English vocabulary, deriving from the Greek plastikos, meaning “able to be molded.” Except modern plastics are built to be durable and have become positively unyielding. And we keep making more of the stuff: 115 million metric tons a year. Light though plastic is, that’s the equivalent of the weight of 347 Empire State Buildings. Ten percent wends its way to sea. Twenty percent of what gets to sea has been tossed off ships and oil rigs; the rest comes via floods and sewage, and much of that from ever-profligate Americans, who produce a record-setting 240 pounds of plastic per person per year.

Remote islands around the world are covered with acres of lighters, pens, bottles, tampon applicators—and tiny pellets of preproduction plastic called nurdles that compose 11 percent of beach litter. The vast eddies of the ocean basins, known as gyres—once called the Horse Latitudes and avoided by sailors—are now full of plastic and riotous with new chemistry. The Texas-sized “great garbage patch” in the North Pacific Gyre holds an estimated 3 million metric tons of mostly plastic trash, six times the mass of the plankton found there. Most has broken into microplastics that chemically bond with PCBS, DDT, and endocrine disrupters to make this area a million times more toxic than surrounding seas. Suspended in surface waters, those plankton-sized flakes are mistakenly consumed by jellyfish and small fish that are in turn consumed by bigger fish, taking the toxic payload further and further up the marine food chain. In the end, the plastic comes back to pollute all of us, something the nations of the world, currently content to ignore a problem in international waters, should remember.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate