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Plastics dumped in the ocean are breaking down into a “plastic smog” that plagues oceans across the planet, according to Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D., marine scientist and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, which studies plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
Eriksen joined Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chairman and chief litigation counsel for Children’s Health Defense on an episode of “RFK Jr. The Defender Podcast,” where he discussed a peer-reviewed study — co-authored by Eriksen and published earlier this month — that found plastic pollution has grown at a rapid, unprecedented rate since 2005.
The researchers collected 11,600 data points in the oceans over 40 years to understand how plastic pollution on the ocean surface changed between 1979 and 2019.
They found plastic pollution grew across the entire study period. However, since 2005, microplastics — pieces of plastics less than the size of a grain of rice — grew exponentially from a few trillion to 170 trillion particles, on average.
This is because plastic trash in the ocean is essentially falling apart, Eriksen said.
“It’s fragmenting. It’s turning into what we call in the paper ‘a smog,’ almost like the way we look at smog over our city’s air pollution, little small particles creating clouds of pollution over our cities. That’s highly toxic.
“The same thing for plastics. We’ve got this growing accumulation of microplastics, micro and now nano creating these clouds, these plumes of microplastic particles by the trillions in every water body hovering over the centers of oceans.”
Each particle is like a small, highly toxic sponge, Eriksen said, because plastics actually absorb chemicals that water doesn’t.
“It might have some chemicals already attached to it from production,” he said. “Then it absorbs more, [things like] like DDT, pesticides, that won’t mix with water, but they stick to plastic.”
Microplastic “sponges” absorb all kinds of industrial chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and/or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), better known as “forever chemicals.”
Then marine animals eat those plastics or become entangled in them.
Eriksen said the exponential growth in ocean plastics has three causes.
First, plastics fragment easily in the ocean. Second, plastics production has skyrocketed in recent years. Third, he said, the policy landscape has changed — international agreements from the 70s and 80s that restricted actions, such as dumping trash in the oceans, have gone from being enforceable treaties to being voluntary measures.
Kennedy told Eriksen about his own work on the effect of endocrine disruptors — namely phthalates and BPAs — in plastics, particularly on child development. He said the most common vector of exposure to endocrine disruptors is plastics:
“Whether it’s from plastic water bottles or all of the things that we eat that are packed in plastic that absorb a lot of those chemicals from the plastic wrapping, even in organic food that is stamped [organic] the BPAs travel through the plastic.”
Over the last several decades, people have been trained to be “throwaway consumers,” Eriksen said, adding that we have moved from a conservation-oriented society to one of “planned obsolescence,” where items break or become unfashionable quickly, so people buy more.
Kennedy asked Eriksen what he thought the solution might be. “What is your dream legislation?” he asked.
Eriksen said people have to realize there is “no silver bullet solution.” He said the problem needs to be addressed “one industry at a time,” because every industry is using a different polymer, using it in different ways and with different societal impacts.
He also said it is important to look “upstream” — to prevention by companies and producers and legislative bodies like cities or even the U.N., which is currently considering a global plastics treaty — rather than “downstream” to individual consumer recycling.
Kennedy added that one of the most challenging “upstream” issues is the strong link between expanding fossil fuel production and plastics production. Byproducts from fracking, for example, are used in plastics production and the expansion of one industry drives the expansion of the other.
He said the Norfolk Southern train accident in Ohio, where the train was carrying vinyl chloride — a key ingredient in PVC production — demonstrated the connections among these industries and the many risks they pose to people’s lives.
“What about recycling? Does that work?” Kennedy asked Eriksen.
Eriksen said the problem with recycling in the U.S. is that it isn’t set up for success.
There has to be a good infrastructure to get the plastics from the consumer to a recycling center to be washed and pelletized and then back into the market for distribution.
“It is so much more expensive of a process than just getting the raw material of the raw feedstock from brand new petroleum, brand new ethylene coming from fracking stations. So it can’t compete economically unless you set it up to compete,” he said.
That would require legislation and industry commitments that don’t exist in the U.S., he said.
Kennedy said some systems like this, where the producer must internalize the costs of recycling, exist in Europe and are effective. In the U.S., on the other hand, the people who create the problem don’t have to pay to clean it up.
“If you really want to have free market capitalism, actors in the marketplace should be paying for all of the costs of bringing their product to market, including the cost of cleaning up after themselves, which was a lesson we were all supposed to have learned at kindergarten.
“But they’re able to evade that cost and escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay their production cost.”
What can people do in their own lives to address this problem?
Avoid plastics, Eriksen said. Buy in bulk and eat organic. But the best thing people can really do, he said, is “get organized.”