I really don’t want anything more to worry about than I’m worrying about already.
But like you, deep in the reptilian part of my brain I’m alert to threats even though (much of the time) there’d be comfort in being oblivious to them (or, as noted here recently, “choosing to remain blissfully unaware”).
Well disregarding that survival instinct, I finally dove into articles I’ve been accumulating on life forms that are co-habiting with our plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and, far more arrestingly, how all life forms on earth (including these garbage patch creatures) have been ingesting, inhaling and storing micro- and nano-particles of plastic within our bodies for some time now. In a kind of poetic justice for our civilization, it appears that we’re finally being occuped by our own trash.
I originally thought the floating co-existence of other life forms with plastic waste in the middle of the ocean was fascinating. (Maybe we could learn something from them about how to live more successfully on our contaminated planet I wondered.) On the other hand, the notion that plastic particles have been accumulating in my body—and may have been doing so for decades—doesn’t trigger curiosity as much as dread, particularly since there’s no apparent way to get rid of it and we don’t yet understand what this lingering debris is, or isn’t, doing to us. But it’s hard to imagine “anything good.”
(The image above puts its own point on this quandary. Taken by photographer Chris Jordan, it shows a decomposing albatross, with the plastic that remained in this great, sea-going bird’s gut after it perished.)
So what do we do with this way-too-loose-for-comfort knowledge besides inducing a little short-term oblivion to get over the initial shock?
All I have are a bid to raise awareness, made some time ago after life-forms were first discovered co-existing with plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and some sang froid after further realizations more recently.
Pictures of Trash Islands currency—created by some cheeky British designers and denominated in units of debris—from when the notion of living with plastic waste was still something that seemed to be happening somewhere else.
I’ve written about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a couple of times before. In 2017 I was surprised by its discovery and captivated by how some enterprising Brits were calling attention to it with “a product line” that included a Trash Islands passport, postage stamps and various denominations of paper money. As we were to learn later, there were similar garbage patches in each of our planet’s oceans—it just happened that the one in the Pacific was the largest, a “gyre” of plastic waste swirled together by ocean currents that had grown to roughly three times the size of France.
When more information emerged about the life-forms that were accumulating on this debris I wrote about it again—focusing, in particular, on some scientists’ urging us to refrain from removing these islands of plastic until we could learn more about the neuston (or variety of life-forms) that were co-habiting with our debris in this “new” environment. That post was We’re All Caught in This Gyration.
At the time, I guess I couldn’t rule out a future where we (humans) might be able to live with and even thrive along side of our plastic waste too. These neuston might even tell us something about how to do so.
I was also undeterred by The Ocean Clean-up (“TOC”)’s push-back against this wait-and-study approach. TOC was the only organization with boats in the oceans’ garbage patches already, netting and removing as much of the plastic debris as possible, notwithstanding “the Sisyphean nature” of the environmental challenge (since as quickly as they could remove it, more plastic kept being thrown into the oceans to replace it.)
Still, I argued for a pause so we could try and understand what was happening between the life-forms and these plastics because (from a scientific perspective) they were “responding to an alien environment in real time.” Moreover, I thought we should try to do so without pre-conceptions or “new eyes” that might also give us clues about how to better co-exist with our polluted planet going forward. As I wrote at the time:
So if we’re not so different from these tiny creatures clinging to civilization’s debris, what kind of curiosity should we bring to the transitional environment that’s resulted–a place that’s unlike anything we knew in the pre-plastics world where all humans lived only 80 years ago?
A plastic-infused environment belongs to these tiny sea creatures as much as it belongs to us and it won’t be disentangled from either of our life cycles anytime soon. Of course we should bring our fullest and richest forms of curiosity to the task of understanding it.
Luckily, TOC also didn’t view its reaction as an either/or. It could get rid of as much ocean plastic as possible while also being curious about the unique accommodations that were happening on top of it. And for those who were worried about the occupying life-forms that were being “collected,” TOC had some strategies to help at least some of them too.
Some of the neuston or life forms that were found to be living with ocean plastics.
Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and Wired magazine have focused on the diversity of sea-life amidst this floating debris and how The Ocean Clean-Up folks (among others) have been studying and protecting them, because as TOC’s work gained greater attention other non-profits and governmental agencies also began to take a greater interest in these plastics-based ecosystems.
Two weeks ago, the Journal reported (here’s a paywall-free link) that NOAA, or America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had found 484 marine invertebrates in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch representing 46 different species. Moreover, most of “these hitchhikers” were coastal species that had apparently found a way to adapt to life out in the open ocean. Despite it being “a food desert for marine life that experiences punishing temperature extremes [close to the surface],” the neuston out there appear to be both growing and reproducing.
The same article quoted Matthias Egger, a scientist at TOC, talking about how the neuston are faring amidst the plastic:
’They’re having a blast [and] that’s really a shift in the scientific understanding.’
[For example,] anemones like to protect themselves with grains of sand Dr. Egger went on to say, but out in the garbage patch they are covered in seed-like microplastics. Moreover, squeeze one of them and the plastic shards spew out, he said: ‘They’re all fully loaded with plastic on the outside and inside.’
A piece in Wired this week elaborated on TOC’s and Dr. Egger’s responses not only to this brave new world but also to their initial efforts to remove as much of it from the oceans as possible. It’s headline summarizes the problem this way: “Patches of floating plastic are teeming with life, and cleanup companies hauling trash out of the water risk destroying an aquatic habitat.”
In response to this criticism, we’re told that Eggers and other TOC scientists are sampling the surface water around their clean-up operation on a weekly basis “to compare the composition of neuston, to understand which species to look out for, what effect the clean-up system has [on them]. and whether there are seasonal differences in how many neuston are present.” TOC expects to announce its findings about these and other aspects of this “aquatic habitat” shortly.
In the meantime, TOC is also trying to save as many of these life-forms as possible by revamping its netting process to give anything alive that it catches multiple chances to escape. (One worry is that if large amounts of neuston are killed, it could have a negative impact on the turtles, fish, seabirds and other animals that eat them.) So TOC has increased the mesh size of the nets to allow at least some of these creatures (like blue buttons and violet snails) to pass through their nets while continuing to capture the plastic waste. In addition, TOC is moving its nets:
slowly through the water to allow mobile species to swim away. There are lights and acoustic deterrents, underwater cameras to detect protected species such as sea turtles, and escape hatches on the underside of nets for animals that get caught. [In addition,] before hoisting the nets aboard, the crew leaves them in the water for up to an hour to give animals time to escape.
Still, some marine life remains with the plastic waste that is removed. And even for the successful escapees, the future could be complicated. Will they continue “to thrive” with plastic particles throughout their bodies or will the consequences for them be far more dire?
Harmful consequences for tiny sea-creatures in the middle of the ocean may be difficult to contemplate, but we’re even less willing to consider what might happen to us when these plastic micro-particles enter our bodies.
Mark O’Connell begins his recent, harrowing essay in the New York Times (here is another paywall-free link) by contending that our bodies are just as suffused with microplastics as the bodies of the anemones in the oceans’ garbage patches. (And from the limited research I have done—including consulting the authorities he cites—there seems to be little dispute about it.)
There is plastic everywhere in our bodies; it’s in our lungs and in our bowels and in the blood that pulses through us. We can’t see it, and we can’t feel it, but it is there. It is there in the water we drink and the food we eat, and even in the air that we breathe. We don’t know, yet, what it’s doing to us, because we have only quite recently become aware of its presence; but since we’ve learned of it, these ingested plastics have become a source of profound anxiety.
Maybe it’s nothing; maybe it’s fine. Maybe this jumble of fragments — bits of water bottles, tires, polystyrene packaging, microbeads from cosmetics — is washing through us [eventually] and causing no particular harm. But even if that were true, we’d still have the impact of knowing that there is plastic waste in our bodies. This knowledge registers, in some vague way, as apocalyptic; it has a whiff of divine vengeance, sly and poetically appropriate. Maybe this has been our fate all along, to achieve final communion with our own trash.
(In addition to lending this post its title, O’Connell also pointed me towards the Chris-Jordan albatross photo that announces it.)
When I read his essay this week, his words hit me like the biblical Jeremiah’s. O’Connell believes that by recklessly consuming our planet, trashing it with our throw-aways, and naively assuming that there will be no consequences when all of this trash breaks down, we plainly deserve whatever it is that comes back to haunt us.
On the other hand, (like with the neuston’s uncertain fate) O’Connell readily admits that neither he nor the scientific community knows what these internalized particles of plastic are doing to us—if anything—in the long run. At the same time however, he brings more than his outrage and his eloquence to his assessments.
Some of the power of his essay comes from the fact that he’s been a kind of canary in this particular coal mine. O’Connell suffers from I.B.D, a chronic autoimmune condition. While not life threatening, it periodically saps him of energy, sometimes making him unable to work for weeks at time. His suffering led him to discover a 2021 study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that found significantly higher levels of micro-plastics in the bodies of I.B.D. sufferers than in the rest of us, although he adds that only circmstantial evidence as opposed to “direct causation” was established.
But to add to the coincidence as it relates to humans, O’Connell also mentions scientific studies on the harmful impacts of micro-plastics on sea-life from 2018 (documenting lower growth and reproduction in fish), 2020 (changes in fish behavior), and just last month (intestinal tract disease in seabirds). But again these are early trials, none involved human subjects, and the causal links that were identified were tenuous when they were made at all.
So nothing is conclusive, but there is more than enough to feed our apprehensions. And then there is the rough justice that comes from realizing that, at last, we may be reaping what we have sown. As O’Connell writes in his powerful conclusion,
[T]he idea that we are eating our own purchasing power, that we might be poisoning ourselves with our insistent consumerism, burrows into the unconscious like a surrealist conceit.
From this vantage point, could the sea-life in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch really be “having a blast”?
And it seems even harder to look at ourselves—now effectively in their place—with new, fresh and anything like shame-free eyes.
Will our culpability help or hurt the ways that we’ll respond?
This post was adapted from my May 7, 2023 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning, and sometimes I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe (and not miss any) by leaving your email address in the column to the right.