Editor’s Note: Carl Safina’s most recent book is “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel.” A MacArthur Fellow, he holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
This week, we read of a whale that washed up dead in the Philippines with almost 90 pounds of plastic in its stomach.
A Forbes headline online reads, “Yet Another Dead Whale Found With Pounds of Plastic In Its Stomach.” But that was another headline, about another whale, from last fall.
All these great ocean creatures are like bottles washing ashore, each bearing a message for all of us: We are choking on your trash.
This is literally true. And the ocean’s living things are not just on choking on plastic, but in it. For many sea creatures, ocean plastic is so dense it is unavoidable. And because so many of them are ingesting so much plastic, it is now getting into seafood sold for human consumption. We are killing the oceans with plastic, and eating it, too.
Reading of this latest whale, I remembered a shark I had seen swimming with its flesh growing around a plastic packing strap. I remembered the drifting net with a dead sailfish tangled in it. Turtles with missing flippers caused by entanglements. An albatross trying to feed her chick while coughing up a toothbrush, and dead chicks full of plastic jar-lids and lighters. I recalled the first time I saw plastic on a coral reef – and tried to remember the last time I did not. I flashed back on plastic-strewn beaches of Alaska and the mid-Pacific, of Hawaii, of Africa.
A few days ago, one of my students and I googled “surfer plastic wave.” The images were mesmerizing, and horrifying. Everywhere now, we encounter a world as it was never meant to be, wounded and out of round. A world with no plan and no destination, going as fast as it can.
Some say we are in a new time, a human-dominated world dubbed the Anthropocene. In my travels among the world’s remaining wild lives and wild places I too often see not just a human-dominated planet but a miracle being ruined. A better name for our time might be the Obs-cene.
But if my encounters with plastic in the ocean I’ve loved are dispiriting, far worse is the world that sea creatures are now trapped in, where they can no longer escape an ocean mined with the material record of our blind ambitions, household items of every description in every stage of breakage, lost cargo by the ton, lost fishing gear by the mile.
A few years ago, a study concluded that around 8 million tons enter the ocean annually, “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” said researcher Jenna Jambeck. Another study concluded that every decade now, the ocean’s total load of plastic doubles. Some 80% of ocean plastic comes from land, not ships. As much as half is water bottles.
Meanwhile, recycling markets that should be helping are collapsing.
Plastic breaks up, but it never breaks down. It’s always plastic, and the smaller the plastic, the smaller the animals that can ingest it and the more it leaches its toxic components.
Several sperm whales of a group mysteriously washed up on Germany in 2016 contained, among items they’d swallowed, a nearly 43-foot-long fishing net, a plastic automobile-engine cover, and other debris. The most recent whale, the Cuvier’s beaked whale with the 88 pounds of plastic, had ingested grocery bags, plastic garbage bags, 20 rice and banana sacks, and a lot else that doesn’t belong in the sea or in a warm and breathing living being.
And of course, the ones reported are only the ones that wash ashore. The ocean is big enough to mask much pain. The United Nations estimates that 100,000 whales and dolphins and over a million seabirds die from plastic every year. Some of the ingestion is accidental. To seabirds, plastic smells like food. To turtles, it looks like food. Whales and dolphins may be eating plastic partly because our fishing has depleted their food.
But the bell-buoy tolls for us all. In the USA, researchers who bought seafood at a California seafood market found plastic remnants and fibers in 25% of the individual fish, two-thirds of all species acquired, and in one-third of individual shellfish sampled. Plastic has now been found in tap water and in human feces.
Plastics are eternal, but they haven’t been around forever. People now in their 60s and older came into the world while the ocean contained essentially no plastic. Wide commercial production did not begin until the 1940s. Plastic wasn’t reported in the ocean until the 1960s, when annual plastic production had reached 50 million metric tons.
By 2015, global annual plastics production surpassed 300 million metric tons, and the ocean contained an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles. The deepest part of the ocean now contains abundant plastic, as do the stomachs of the sea’s deepest-dwelling denizens.
We can do much better. Immediate steps are needed. Governments and economists must act to address the recent collapse in markets for recycled plastic; production and recycling must become inextricably linked in a circular economy. Because most plastic enters the sea from rivers, efforts to entrain plastic should focus not on the impossibility of collecting it from mid-ocean, but at its most concentrated points: rivers themselves.
Plastics that cannot be recycled should be banned from household items and packaging, as should most single-use applications of plastic. New, truly biodegradable materials, which exist, with more in development, must rapidly be scaled to replace non-decomposable polymers in many uses, especially all single-use products.
If that doesn’t happen we can expect ever-more plastic in the bodies of ever-more of the world’s beleaguered, ailing, toxified creatures; a list that will increasingly include us. That dead whale is telling us, loud and clear, that action on plastic is overdue.