In 2004 two oceanographers from the British Antarctic Survey completed a study of plastic dispersal in the Atlantic that spanned both hemispheres. “Remote oceanic islands,” the study showed, “may have similar levels of debris to those adjacent to heavily industrialized coasts.” Even on the shores of Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic, the survey found on average a plastic item every five meters.
Back in the 1980s, the specter of fouled beaches was a recurring collective nightmare. The Jersey Shore was awash in used syringes. New York’s garbage barge wandered the seas. On the approach to Kennedy Airport, the protagonist of “Paradise,” a late Donald Barthelme novel, looked out his airplane window and saw “a hundred miles of garbage in the water, from the air white floating scruff.” We tend to tire of new variations on the apocalypse, however, the same way we tire of celebrities and pop songs. Eventually all those syringes, no longer delivering a jolt of guilt or dread, receded from the national consciousness. Who could worry about seabirds garotted by six-pack rings when Alaska’s shores were awash in Exxon’s crude? Who could worry about turtles tangled in derelict fishing nets when the ice caps were melting and the terrorists were coming?
Then, too, for a while it seemed as if we might succeed in laying this particular ecological nightmare to rest. In the mid-1980s, New York’s sanitation department began deploying vessels called TrashCats to hoover up scruff from the waterways around the Fresh Kills landfill. Elsewhere beach-sweeping machines did the same for the sand. In 1987 the federal government ratified Marpol Annex V, an international treaty that made it illegal to throw nonbiodegradable trash — that is, plastic — overboard from ships in the waters of signatory countries. The good news for the ocean kept coming: in 1988, Congress passed the Ocean Dumping Reform Act, which forbade cities to decant their untreated sewage into the sea. In 1989 the Ocean Conservancy staged its first annual International Coastal Cleanup (I.C.C.), which has since grown into the largest such event in the world. But beautification can be deceiving. Although many American beaches — especially those that generate tourism revenues — are much cleaner these days than they used to be, the oceans, it seems, are another matter.
Not even oceanographers can tell us exactly how much floating scruff is out there; oceanographic research is simply too expensive and the ocean too varied and vast. In 2002, Nature magazine reported that during the 1990s, debris in the waters near Britain doubled; in the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica the increase was a hundredfold. And depending on where they sample, oceanographers have found that between 60 and 95 percent of today’s marine debris is made of plastic.
Plastic gets into the ocean when people throw it from ships or leave it in the path of an incoming tide, but also when rivers carry it there, or when sewage systems and storm drains overflow. Despite the Ocean Dumping Reform Act, the U.S. still releases more than 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm runoff every year, according to a 2004 E.P.A. report. Comb the Manhattan waterfront and you will find, along with the usual windrows of cups, bottles and plastic bags, what the E.P.A. calls “floatables,” those “visible buoyant or semibuoyant solids” that people flush into the waste stream like cotton swabs, condoms, tampon applicators and dental floss.
The problems are global because the sources of plastic pollution are far-flung but also because, like emissions riding the winds, pollutants at sea can travel.
Do your part, cut down your plastic.
Learn More at the NYTimes