Democracy Dies in Darkness

Morning Mix

By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world's oceans, study says

January 20, 2016 at 5:48 AM

A September 2008 photo released by the Ocean Conservancy on March 10, 2009, shows a trash-covered beach in Manilla, Philippines. (Tamara Thoreson Pierce/Ocean Conservancy/AP)

There is a lot of plastic in the world's oceans.

It coagulates into great floating "garbage patches" that cover large swaths of the Pacific. It washes up on urban beaches and remote islands, tossed about in the waves and transported across incredible distances before arriving, unwanted, back on land. It has wound up in the stomachs of more than half the world's sea turtles and nearly all of its marine birds, studies say. And if it was bagged up and arranged across all of the world's shorelines, we could build a veritable plastic barricade between ourselves and the sea.

But that quantity pales in comparison with the amount that the World Economic Forum expects will be floating into the oceans by the middle of the century.

If we keep producing (and failing to properly dispose of) plastics at predicted rates, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050, the nonprofit foundation said in a report Tuesday.

According to the report, worldwide use of plastic has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years, and it is expected to double again in the next 20 years. By 2050, we'll be making more than three times as much plastic stuff as we did in 2014.

[Nearly all of the world's seabirds have eaten plastic, study estimates]

Meanwhile, humans do a terrible job of making sure those products are reused or otherwise disposed of: About a third of all plastics produced escape collection systems, only to wind up floating in the sea or the stomach of some unsuspecting bird. That amounts to about 8 million metric tons a year — or, as Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia put it to The Washington Post in February, "Five bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world."

The report came a day before the start of the glitzy annual meeting arranged by the World Economic Forum to discuss the global economy. This year's meeting in Davos, Switzerland, is centered on what the WEF terms "the fourth industrial revolution" — the boom in high-tech areas like robotics and biotechnology — and its effect on the widening gulf between the wealthy and the world's poor.

But the plastic situation — fairly low-tech and more than a century old at this point — is a reminder that we still haven't quite gotten the better of some of the problems left over from the first few "industrial revolutions."

['Microbeads' soon will be banned from toothpaste and soaps]

According to the report, more than 70 percent of the plastic we produce is either put in a landfill or lost to the world's waterways and other infrastructure. Plastic production accounts for 6 percent of global oil consumption (a number that will hit 20 percent in 2050) and 1 percent of the global carbon budget (the maximum amount of emissions the world can produce to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius). In 2050, the report says, we'll be spending 15 percent of our carbon budget on soda bottles, plastic grocery bags and the like.

Once it gets washed into waterways, the damage caused by plastics' presence costs about $13 billion annually in losses for the tourism, shipping and fishing industries. It disrupts marine ecosystems and threatens food security for people who depend on subsistence fishing.

Besides which, all that plastic in the water isn't too great for the animals trying to live there.

The data in the report comes from interviews with more than 180 experts and analysis of some 200 studies on "the plastic economy."

ONE TIME USE ONLY--------------Artist Chris Jordan is making a film about the albatrosses of Midway Island, which are being impacted by the “plastic soup” in the Pacific Ocean.
“It’s a pretty stunning experience to go out there and to see so much death,” Jordan said of his visit to Midway Island to photograph the effects of pollution on albatrosses. The photos are accordingly blunt. In the albatrosses’ most advanced stages of decomposition, the rot leaves a dark shadow around a plastic crater in the earth.
The albatrosses’ bodies melt away, leaving a spattering of bones, bills and feathers. Softness is still present in many of Jordan’s frames, whether in the form of blooming tufts of down or delicate bones.
As the feathers decay, they wilt into burnt siennas accented by snow white vertebrae, grating against the uncomfortable pastels of the plastics.
Jordan had seen activists’ photos of dead birds with plastic still inside the skeletons and wondered if the images were staged. But, he said, when he got to the island he “saw, in fact, there really are that many [decaying birds], and they are completely filled with plastic.”
Jordan said the sights on Midway Island were so incredible he realized that some might doubt the truth of his photos. “I had to set an incredibly high ethical standard,” he said. In shooting the dead birds, he allowed himself only to remove an obscuring breastbone or patch of grass. If the tripod so much as bumped the bird during set up and moved the plastic, Jordan would stop the shoot and move on to another subject.
Jordan’s photos have been honored by the Prix Pictet, an award that honors photography that focuses on sustainability.
In addition to the photography, Jordan and a video crew are nearing completion of a feature length documentary, scheduled for release in 2014.
Jordan and his crew will make two more trips to Midway Island to finish the documentary: in September to film the island when it is barren except for the dead albatrosses, and in December to capture mating dances.
Over the course of filming, Jordan’s documentary has transformed from one centered on cultural activism to one that is as much about the mystery of the cycle of life. He says this is the heart of Midway Island: Even in the deepest horror, there is incredible beauty.
The name given to the accumulation of tons of man-made debris in the Pacific, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, brings to mind a bobbing plastic purgatory. But these are misconceptions. Pollution is spread out over thousands of miles and some lurks below the surface.
According to John Klavitter, deputy refuge manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is able to clean up about eight of the 20 tons of debris that reaches Midway Island yearly.
Photo Gallery: Artist Chris Jordan has been documenting the impact of pollution on the albatrosses of Midway Island. He learned of this while researching a photo series about the intersection of mass consumption and mass culture. The discovery prompted Jordan to head off to the remote island in September 2009 to photograph the birds. Here are some of his images.

The report was published on the same day that a study came out in the journal Nature Communications asserting that the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization is drastically underestimating the overfishing of the oceans. The study, from researchers Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller of the University of British Columbia's Sea Around Us project, found that global catches between 1950 and 2010 were probably 50 percent higher than previously thought — meaning that damage to the world's fish stocks was also much worse.

Overall, it was not a good news day for anyone with fins.

But both reports gave some signs for optimism. Pauly and Zeller told The Washington Post that the underestimation of how much humans were fishing means the U.N. also underestimated how much fish the oceans can provide.

"If we rebuild stocks, we can rebuild to more than we thought before," Pauly said. "Basically, the oceans are more productive than we thought before."

And the World Economic Forum report, though not quite so sunny, suggests that there are ways to offset all this plastic we're making and discarding. Countries can implement incentives to collect waste and recycle it, use more efficient or reusable packaging and improve infrastructure so that less trash slips through the system and into the seas.


Sarah Kaplan is a science reporter covering news from around the nation and across the universe. She previously worked overnights on The Washington Post's Morning Mix team.

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