The Haunting Nature of Plastics
A lyrical meditation on our most insidious creation.
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This article was originally published in Orion, a magazine that explores the connection between nature and culture. Read more stories like this at orionmagazine.org.
Early in 2004, a buoy was released into the waters off Argentina. Half of the buoy was dark and the other light, like a planet in relief. The buoy sailed east, accompanied by the vastness of the ocean and all the life it contains, the long-lived great humpback whales with their complex songs that carry for kilometers, and the short-lived Argentine shortfin squid. Along the way, many thousands of minuscule creatures were colonizing this new surface, which had appeared like a life raft in the open waters of the South Atlantic.
The researchers who’d dropped the buoy followed its movement in hopes of learning more about ocean currents than generations of science and sailing history had revealed. They watched the buoy float into the wide-open ocean between South America and Africa, those twin coastlines that struck me, as I gazed at them on the pull-down map in first grade, as two puzzle pieces that once linked. They surveilled its movements by GPS. Eighteen months later, the signal ceased. Silence from the satellites.
The buoy continued along the currents of the South Atlantic, free from surveillance, sheltered and shocked by sun and clouds and storms overhead. It was likely molded out of a thermoplastic polymer called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS, which, like most plastics, was crafted from the extracted remains of long-ago life forms. ABS was engineered in the lab to endure—rigid, resilient, capable of withstanding all that being let loose at sea may foist upon it.
All plastic begins in a factory. That much we know. But where it goes next remains poorly understood. Only one percent of the plastic released into the marine environment is accounted for, found on the surface and in the intestines of aquatic animals. The rest is a little harder to measure. Some presumably washes back ashore. An untold amount settles, sunk by the weight of its new passengers. (One study found four times more plastic fibers in the sediment of the deep-sea floor than on the surface of the ocean.)
And some, like the buoy, just keeps drifting along.
I have spent 30 years fixated on environmental issues, spawned during my own oceanic migration in the fall of 1989. For a semester, I circumnavigated the planet with 500 other undergraduates on a decaying coal-fired cruise ship held together by layers of paint. We spent half our time exploring ports and half on board, immersed in classes. One course I took, depressingly titled Environmental Problems, was taught by a dull Russian professor. The year had been a tumultuous one for humans and nation-states around the globe. We were at sea when the Berlin Wall fell. We traveled through the gray streets of Kiev, Ukraine, in the dying days of the USSR and within the walled city of Dubrovnik soon before Yugoslavia dissolved into civil war. We boycotted China, after its government opened fire on youth protestors in Tiananmen Square a few months earlier. Everywhere, life was simmering, boiling over.
It should have been politics I latched onto. But I became preoccupied by what the Russian professor was telling us and what my young eyes were witnessing: a paltry harvest in the nets of Taiwanese fisherfolk, the great pyramids at Giza dissolving under the pollution of Cairo, Egypt, the trash we shipmates generated, which was hurled off the back deck of the SS Universe as she plowed ever westward to the next alluring port. All our junk seemingly vanished in our wake, not unlike the disposal method of civilization at large, its logic evident in the phrase “to throw away.” But of course, away is always somewhere.
The vast majority of what is now at sea began on land, dumped both deliberately and inadvertently, an estimated eight million tonnes each year. Plastic factories spill preproduction pellets known as nurdles, feedstock of the plastic production pipeline, easy to transport to other factories and easy to form into … anything. The nurdles escape. The objects they’re molded into escape. Things get used and discarded. Even when optimistically collected and bound for a “sanitary” landfill, things fall off the backs of trucks or fly away with the wind. Rains flush it all down the sewer. The sewer daylights into a river, and the river travels to the sea.
Along the way, I’ve come to learn, life takes hold.
In the fall of 1971, a young biologist named Ed Carpenter was just starting his scientific career at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, near where I now live. Carpenter was interested in plants and sea life, and he’d decided to head off into the Atlantic Ocean to study them.
The Atlantis II sauntered through the waters of the Sargasso Sea, dragging along a net to collect what floated on the neuston layer, where sea meets sky, skin of three-quarters of the planet. Carpenter was there to study sargassum, the floating mats of brown seaweed that give the sea its name as they collect in the North Atlantic Gyre, formed by the four great currents that swirl around it, which in turn are formed by winds and the rotation of our planet in space. Carpenter was looking for living things but kept encountering plastics: pellet-shaped, brittle, weathered, sharp, white, reflective. All kinds. All colors. A few revealed their former land-based purposes in service to humans: parts of a syringe, a cigar holder, a piece of jewelry, a button snap. Algae and jellyfish-like creatures, he observed, clung to their surfaces, just as they do to the natural tendrils of sargassum. Every haul, from the first to the last, over a distance spanning 1,300 kilometers, captured plastics.
The data showed an average of 3,500 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the Sargasso Sea. The closest land was Bermuda, 240 kilometers away.
Carpenter’s findings were published in the prestigious journal Science in 1972. “Increasing production of plastics, combined with present waste-disposal practices,” he wrote with his coauthor, Ken Smith, “will undoubtedly lead to increases in the concentration of these particles.” It was likely the first mention in the literature of synthetic polymers showing up in marine environments. It was, as careers go, a proud moment for the young scientist.
But Carpenter got pushback. His superiors questioned why a biologist should care about plastic. And he received an unexpected visit from a Society of the Plastics Industry representative. “I got the vibes, so to speak, that he was not too happy about this paper,” Carpenter recently told Anja Krieger for her podcast Plastisphere. Carpenter would publish only one more paper on plastics before leaving the subject and Woods Hole behind.
Around the same time, also in Woods Hole, the nonprofit Sea Education Association (SEA) formed with the mission of training young people in environmental literacy. Through one of SEA’s semester programs (the scientific equivalent of the cultural program I’d done), the organization stocked research vessels with students and sent them off into the Atlantic Ocean. From the beginning, they took note of the plastics they saw. But starting in 1986, SEA students and researchers began using the neuston net method that Carpenter had used, systematically documenting the plastics they found.
On June 29, 2010, SEA brought in a fateful haul. A crew of sailors, students, and scientists aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, SEA’s 40-meter brigantine-rigged sailing ship and research vessel, was about halfway between New York City and the Western Sahara. It was a calm, sunny day, and they had neuston nets extended off both the starboard and port sides when they noticed more and more plastic debris floating on the surface. “Windrow after windrow of chunks,” one student says in a video documenting the day, “even a five-gallon [20-liter] bucket.” Although a typical 30-minute trawl might bring in a couple hundred stray pieces of plastic, this haul had to be cut short after 20 minutes because the nets were straining under the weight of the trash. A single net collected 23,000 pieces of plastic.
In the video, a young woman in a teal tank top, hair pulled back, takes a fillet knife to a triggerfish they pulled in, an out-of-place fish that seems to have found an ecosystem among the junk. She flays it, slicing off an end of the intestine and squeezing out the contents. “This fish was eating at least 30 pieces of plastic,” she says, poking at the colorful bits in the petri dish and passing samples of the muscle and liver to a fellow researcher, who wraps them in tinfoil, bound for a lab in Norway to analyze bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants in the flesh.
“The amount of plastic pieces, the concentration, trumps every other plastic tow that SEA has done in the Atlantic for the last 22 years,” she says later in the video, her face pulled down in a troubling frown, averting her eyes from the camera as she tries to bottle up her emotions. She’s so young. Perhaps she was learning to walk around the time SEA began its surveys. Perhaps her parents were courting when Ed Carpenter took to the Sargasso Sea.
Carpenter’s data from less than 40 years earlier estimated a square kilometer of the ocean’s surface held 3,500 pieces of plastic. Using this singular staggering collection from the SSV Corwith Cramer translates to 26 million pieces of plastic—a 740,000 percent increase—drifting along in the same square area of the sea’s neuston layer. Although that one haul was an outlier, it—just like record-shattering heat records around the planet—is part of a clear trend, one that tilts ever upward. The mass of plastic is now double that of all animals, terrestrial and marine. More heat, more plastic. Both manifestations of an industrial world extruded from oil.
“A historic day,” a crew member says off camera. “It’s an historic day,” the teal-topped young woman echoes, adding, “unfortunately,” as she turns away.
Plastic, wrote Roland Barthes in 1957, “is less an object than the trace of a movement.”
The researchers who dropped their buoy off Argentina lost all trace of its signal before long. Carpenter, venturing farther out, found himself pushed back by a wave of interests. SEA might have gotten to the heart of the matter when they pulled in the mother lode, but in the end, their nets couldn’t hold the entirety of the truth either. Maybe the young woman on the deck of SEA’s ship, fillet knife in hand, cut closer to the point: plastics are never just objects; they’re bodies migrating within ecosystems and through other, larger bodies. Pull a single strand of some synthetic filament, as John Muir might now remark, and unravel the universe. Plastic threads hitching everything to everything else.
Back in 2004, microbiologist Linda Amaral-Zettler wasn’t thinking much about plastics when she was invited to contribute to the Census of Marine Life, a global research project to take stock of the world’s aquatic ecosystems. At the time, she was based in Woods Hole, her “scientific birthplace,” she says. (She is now at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research.) Although her work began with the study of the minute microbial manifestations of life, she, too, like Carpenter, found herself encountering plastic—seemingly inert plastic—instead. Or, more accurately, her explorations unveiled how interactions between the two created a third world, something altogether new. In 2013, she dubbed this place the “plastisphere.” Amaral-Zettler’s husband and research partner, Erik Zettler, who is also a microbiologist, likened it to an exoplanet, an unexplored place with unknown conditions. How will existing life forms interact with it?
In January 2019, Linda and Erik’s investigations led them to the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, where she spotted, floating on the surface of the sea, a stray buoy, a bit larger than a basketball, half light and half dark. “It looked brand new,” Linda told me. “It really brought home the reality that plastic is meant to last a long time, and it really does.” Although the tracker was long dead, Linda could read the number 39257 etched into its surface and used it to track down the drifter’s origins: the coast of Argentina, 15 years prior. The buoy’s contributions to the original researchers’ studies might have been long past, but Linda began her own line of inquiry. In her hand, she held a buoy, yes, but she also held a plastisphere, an unexplored exoplanet made of ABS. She held an animate realm that promised to answer some of the questions that drive her and Erik. How does all this spent human-made trash become home for living creatures? Who inhabits it, and when, and why? What does it mean for them, and what might it mean for us?
Back in her Woods Hole lab, Linda studied the buoy up-close, under the gaze of a scanning electron microscope and with the assistance of chemical analysis and gene sequencing techniques. The dark hemisphere of the buoy, the part that had been submerged for 15 years, interested her the most. It was teeming with life. The buoy’s plastisphere revealed gooseneck barnacles, crustaceans that medieval naturalists once believed spawned actual geese, before they figured out that birds migrate. There were colonies of bryozoans, tiny invertebrates that can’t quite survive unless clustered with their kind, and hydroids, an early life stage of a jellyfish. She saw nudibranchs, mollusks that shed their shells to become sea slugs, revealing bodies like blown glass in lightning shades of fuchsia, teal, hot pink. On the microscopic level, there was even more. Much more. An entire aquatic commonwealth was there.
In their studies, Linda and Erik have found that members of these communities arrive in a clear pattern of succession. The early colonizers, photosynthetic ones that spin sunlight into chemical energy that transforms into substance, can affix to a piece of plastic within six hours. Then come larger ones that graze upon the first arrivals, and then more formidable predators, larger still. There are parasitic relationships and symbiotic ones. There are pit formers, spherical cells that seem integrated into the surface of plastics, like beads stitched into fabric. Linda has found 1,000 different species on plastic pieces no bigger than the size of an eye on a Lego figure.
Since Linda first called what she found under her microscope the plastisphere, the definition of that word has expanded, as has our understanding of what it means to have plastics woven throughout ecological and biological systems great and small. Researchers from all disciplines are asking questions about how plastics, the synthetic polymers that petrochemical companies are wizards at mass-producing, have become integrated into the workings of our natural—and unnatural—world. What role have plastics played in species interactions? How do beetle larvae live for weeks ingesting nothing but polystyrene? How do entire marine ecosystems survive transoceanic journeys on plastics? What are we to make of the fact that plastics are showing up in tap water and air samples? Why do ocean plastics smell so appetizing to turtles? What is the natural and unnatural world we are making for ourselves, and what is the import for every other living being on Earth?
As plastics degrade, so do the barriers that once seemed so defined and distinct, between inert and organic, between outside a body and its interior, between science and art, between present and future.
Even between what is living and what is not.
Although Linda Amaral-Zettler was studying microbial life forms on the buoy, the object itself was what is known as a macroplastic, an object she could sight from the deck of a ship. But plastics break down. More wind, more weather. More light, more time. They don’t disappear. They just fracture, again and again. Smaller than five millimeters, the size of a pencil eraser’s nub, and these polymer pieces are considered microplastics. But how small can a piece of plastic get? Below 100 nanometers in size—the average size of a coronavirus particle, not remotely visible to the human eye—and the polymers step down the scale from microplastic to nanoplastic. Peer into the most powerful microscopes and there are plastics so small they transgress built boundaries, trespass across biological boundaries. The plastisphere becomes “part of our essence,” Amaral-Zettler told me, “our fiber.” It’s as though our lives are one part of the larger story of plastics, rather than the other way around. As though the (plastic) bottle is the message, and we live inside it.
Meanwhile, life moves with plastic and plastic moves with life. The persistence of plastics and their evolving participation in ecological systems are teaching us how those systems work. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami created, in the words of marine scientist James T. Carlton of Williams College in Massachusetts, “an extraordinary transoceanic biological rafting event with no known historical precedent.” He traced the paths of hundreds of Japanese coastal marine species as they voyaged thousands of kilometers, over years. They fastened themselves onto boats, buoys, crates, and entire docks. They landed as far away as Alaska and California. A 191-tonne piece of a former dock washed up in Oregon with 100 species, not one of them native to the United States. It’s yet another way for species endemic to one place to become invasive elsewhere.
Tracey Williams, who walks the beaches near her home in Cornwall, England, crowdsources information about the plastics that wash ashore and tracks them back to known spills. Back in 1997, a rogue wave swatted 62 containers off a cargo ship in the North Atlantic, and one of them held nearly five million Legos, including many with an oceanic theme, now set free within the true ocean: octopuses and life rafts, scuba tanks and spearguns. It is a living experiment, tracked via Williams’s Twitter account @LegoLostatSea, exploring how long these synthetic seafarers—constructed with the same indestructible ABS plastic as buoys—will continue their nautical adventures. (I imagine the reaction of a hyperintelligent octopus encountering its ersatz doppelganger drifting along, those eyes latching on to its inanimate imitation, taking its measure … .)
On this day in 1997, nearly 5 million bits of #Lego fell into the ocean when a huge wave hit the cargo ship Tokio Express, washing 62 containers overboard. We're still finding it 24 years later. Among the pieces lost were green dragons, highly prized among beachcombers. pic.twitter.com/mMEeAeQlup
— Lego Lost At Sea (@LegoLostAtSea) February 13, 2021
Like octopuses, humans are visual creatures. It’s easy for us to imagine the movement of objects that even children can grasp in their hands, those that catch our eyes on a seaside walk. We can manage images of Legos adrift and can mentally, if not emotionally, process horrifying images of Laysan albatross carcasses—feathers, bones, and beaks flared around piles of plastic on Midway Atoll, thousands of kilometers from the nearest continent. We fixate on the image of a turtle with a straw impaled in its nostril, a whale’s fins entangled with ghost lines from lost fishing gear. The images are Instagrammable. But do they deceive? These are the macroplastics of our world. They represent only a fraction of what’s at sea, because even the hardiest plastics break down.
Environmental mariner Charles Moore, sailing the doldrums of the Pacific Ocean in 1997, put it bluntly: “Let it be said straight up that what we came upon [in the Pacific gyre] was not a mountain of trash, an island of trash, a raft of trash, or a swirling vortex of trash—all media-concocted embellishments of the truth,” he wrote. “It was and is a thin plastic soup.”
And yet the flawed imagery of some monolithic “garbage patch” lives on. It’s powerful, imagining a solid heap of oceanic trash. I’ve interviewed people who dedicated their lives to environmental cleanup after first hearing about it, read about others who are busy inventing the equivalent of marine trash collectors to scoop it all up and save the sea.
Others who look closer see both less and more. To them, even soup doesn’t seem like the right descriptor for the plastics they find in the sea.
“It’s worse. It’s everywhere,” writes Max Liboiron, a microplastics geographer at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador and a descendant of the Indigenous Michif and the settlers who came to the region. They direct the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, a feminist, anticolonial marine science laboratory. Back in 2015, they joined a team of other scientists and citizen scientists—surfers and schoolteachers and recycling consultants—collecting microplastics from Bermuda to New York. Together, they pondered the same question: how best to describe what they’d seen? They arrived upon the phrase “plastic smog,” riffing off the familiar petrochemical haze we recognize as we gaze, earthbound, at our horizons. Something both everywhere and nowhere. Something that, no matter how small, amasses into something so substantive it can change the essence of a place, of a body.
The idea of the great garbage patch “served a purpose,” Kara Lavender Law tells me. She is SEA’s research professor of oceanography who has overseen the organization’s student-driven plastic surveys for more than 30 years, and I called her up to ask her about scale. After decades of collecting plastics at sea, what does she make of them? How can we think about plastics as the easy-to-understand image of the great garbage patch disintegrates into something more pervasive, invisible, insidious?
I am thinking of the life we don’t register when I ask her this question. I’m thinking of what’s inside the cylinder of a straw or deep within the folds of tangled fishing line. But Law shifts our conversation away from the plastisphere, meaning the objects and the life upon it, and brings it back to bodies. “We’re really talking about human health,” she says, meaning this is bigger than even the ocean, and smaller than what is visible. “There’s plastic in your beer,” she says, “and your salt.”
Plastics are entering aquifers and passing through water filtration systems. A small but global study—150 tap water samples from five continents—found that 83 percent of the samples contained microplastics, from the shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda to Trump Tower in New York City. The United States was the worst of all nations, with only six percent unsullied. I think of my reverse osmosis filter, like the ones that proliferate in places like India, as impenetrable. It is not. Nothing is.
To understand what’s in the watersheds she studies, Utah State University biogeochemist Janice Brahney turned to the air. What is in the dust that falls with each rain? She crossed the American West, seeking wilderness, Arctic snow, and glaciers to set up stations where she could collect the motes that exist like fairy dust around us. Back at the lab, she found microbeads, tiny plastics found in beauty products, of every color. She found fibers from clothing—nylon, polyester, polypropylene. Dry fleece fibers brought by cross-continental jet streams from laundered metropolises to the most isolated spots, even the aptly named Craters of the Moon National Monument. Brahney found that, on average, plastics constitute four percent of dust, an enormous amount, she said.
It is not just the presence of plastics that interests scientists, but also the host of compounds secreted inside, remnants of their manufacture and their lives at sea. There are thousands of additives, including colorants, flame retardants, and plasticizers, that make some kinds of plastic more supple, malleable, and useful. Over time, these additives can leak or leach, polluting the environment around them. But plastics function as a sponge, both releasing to and sopping up these environmental pollutants from the waters around them. One study by Japanese geochemist Hideshige Takada found that three-millimeter, preproduction plastic pellets contained persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins, PCBs, and DDT at a million times the concentration of the surrounding seawater. When ingested, many of these pollutants can act on biological systems as endocrine disrupters, skewing development, stealing intellectual potential, altering fertility, instigating metabolic diseases, or interfering with hormone signaling, even at the lowest dose.
And ingestion is easy. The plastisphere, that biofouling film of life that forms on plastics, creates an alchemy that masquerades marine debris into enticing bits of fake food for unsuspecting creatures. Chocolate frosting smeared on a plastic cupcake. It smells good to them, and so they eat the plastic, now laden with pollutants from surrounding waters. Once ingested, the pollutants transfer to their bodies and bioaccumulation begins. From plastic to zooplankton, from zooplankton to fish, and so on.
Again, the scale is staggering: certain plants can draw up plastic-infused dust through their vascular systems, embedding it in the vegetative material that becomes food for others. Synthetic fabric fibers have been found in the digestive tracts of more than 100 species and can pass through the intestinal walls of crabs and fish. Polystyrene microspheres that were lit up in a lab to be fluorescent were found to accumulate in the guts of mussels. They then migrated to the circulatory system, where they remained for 48 days. “This was a game changer,” the ecologist Mark Browne told one journalist. “Up until that point everyone thought that these particles would be ingested and then go right out the other side.”
Eventually, this everywhere-plastic reaches even the purest of bodies. The human fetus swims in an “inland ocean” of one, as biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber once put it. Even in this cushioned, contained world of amniotic waters, researchers have found traces of plastics-making chemicals: bisphenols, phthalates, flame retardants. Pollutants eternally searching for equilibrium. Everyone, everything, seeking its place in the world order.
Stratigraphers are geologists concerned with order and what the layers of the Earth suggest about deep time, and they, too, are asking questions about plastics. Just as there are matters of scale in size, so are there temporal scales. Recognizing that Earth’s systems have left the stable 11,000-year stretch known as the Holocene, some stratigraphers are searching for a new “golden spike,” the place in the rock record where our descendants can definitively point and say, “Here. This shows how it all changed.” Paleoecological signposts that mark humanity’s impact on the planet are far and wide, but the stratigraphers are homing in on the 1950s—the time of postwar economic boom, the Great Acceleration, more of everything, everywhere. Could the plastics of the brief decades since then become part of an actual epoch, a permanent mark in the geological record? The stratigraphers lean toward the name Anthropocene, the age of humans, but perhaps the Plasticene is a more fitting name. Our plastic progeny is everywhere, after all, from Arctic sea ice to the deepest of sea trenches. Plastics move with wind, water, time. They spread and settle. Big pieces become little pieces, like boulders breaking down and turning into sand that runs the length of a shoreline, a beach a place in motion, stretching across time. What better signature of this new epoch?
Geologist Patricia Corcoran and sculptor Kelly Jazvac sought out Kamilo Beach in Hawai‘i after Captain Charles Moore mentioned it was a place of marine debris accumulation and convergence. There they encountered plastiglomerate, amalgamations of plastic and basalt and coral and shells fused together—perhaps by beach fires—into something that appears as ready-made sculpture: an archaeological and geological marker of our age, blue synthetic swirls of identification melted into metamorphic rock. A strange beauty in a broken world.
The epoch makers are veering away from using plastics to define the threshold of the Anthropocene, proposing instead the use of radionuclides, the fingerprints of the atomic age—another thing that can cross boundaries and enter the biological world. But with a nearly invisible marker detectable only with specialized equipment, instead of one that every human alive today has interacted with, has something been stolen from our descendants? Could the fossils we’re forming today be an inheritance that even a child—maybe human, maybe something beyond human, living in some long-to-come future—might chance upon, making their own discovery? Moving across a land once known as Hawai‘i or Cornwall, pause, kneel down, and grasp a colorful stone. And only upon close inspection, realize that it is no stone at all, but something fused together at a moment when the being’s ancestors were binding the natural and unnatural worlds into one.
The dream of these artifacts reminds me of the words of Amitav Ghosh, writing of extreme weather events of the climate crisis: “They are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.”
All life now lives, now evolves, now dies with the carbon dioxide already released into the atmosphere, the plastics already unleashed everywhere. And will, for a very long time.
There is a disturbing splendor in the destruction the industrial age has wrought, which makes me think about Linda Amaral-Zettler in her lab, inspecting the buoy, discovering how its darkened hemisphere could hold such a thriving layer of the living, not unlike the surface of the planet we live upon. A place that was once lifeless rock, where oceans emerged, and, from them, single-celled entities and then photosynthetic ones that could spin sunlight into substance. Setting a stage for a home where life can become ever more complicated, right to its humpback whales and inquiring scientists with neuston nets and floating laboratories.
But still I return again and again to that image from space of what this planet looks like from a remove—that “lonely blue marble”—only half of it ever illuminated at any given moment, all of it afloat in a vast and endless sea of darkness, vulnerable, isolated, yet teeming with life.
Amaral-Zettler kept the buoy after her initial studies were done. She couldn’t throw it away, for scientific reasons, or maybe because she knew there was no away. But in the environment of the lab, everything that had once lived upon it died, species by species. How thin that layer is. How utterly, devastatingly fragile.