The Secret Life of Plastic

by: Posted on: June 11, 2012

Photo: NOAA Photo Library

Editor’s Note: Written by the inspired Young Writer Amanda Clausen, this piece provides an observant look at how we came to consume and pollute the oceans with so much plastic.

Amanda is currently studying biology and Spanish at Western Washington University. She works with the Northwest Straits chapter of the Surfrider Foundation to monitor Bellingham Bay’s water quality and to educate the public about local and global watersheds. She also volunteers at the Marine Life Center in Bellingham.

The Surfrider Foundation is dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches. Founded in 1984 in Southern California, Surfrider is now an international organization. The Northwest Straits chapter has recently been involved with passing the Bellingham bag bill, opposing the Cherry Point terminal, and testing the water quality of Bellingham Bay.


Sixty years ago, the post-World War II United States saw the rise of consumerism and the beginnings of the “disposable lifestyle.” Economic prosperity and an obsession with “convenience” defined the 1950s. Disposable paper plates and plastic cutlery made life easier on housewives, plastic grocery bags and plastic water bottles made their first appearances, and over the subsequent decades society became accustomed to the ease of such single-use items.

The use of these disposable conveniences has become a deeply engrained habit for societies worldwide. We buy a water bottle, we drink the water, and we throw the bottle away, no longer our problem. But the bottle’s life story does not end in the garbage can. It ends in the ocean.

In 1997, Captain Charles Moore came upon the Great Pacific Garbage Patch while returning from a yachting competition in Hawaii. The Patch is very tangible evidence of the wastefulness of societies worldwide. Plastic combs, cups, lighters and plastic toys travel from all over the planet to meet in the central Pacific Ocean. It’s tough to quantify the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is often called an island or an aquatic landfill, but since it knows no boundaries it’s more like an enormous plastic soup. The patch is estimated to contain 3.5 million tons of debris. Concentration levels are highest in the North Pacific Gyre, where plastics get trapped in the eddying currents, but these days there is no escape from plastic litter. Everywhere you look, even on the most far-flung and remote beaches on the planet, bottle caps and plastic bags are washing up on the shores. The debris is unpleasant for beachgoers, but aside from its unsightly nature the litter also poses a major threat to marine life and ecosystem health.

Since Captain Moore’s discovery, he has conducted studies on marine life, water quality, and plastic concentration in the vicinity of the Garbage Patch. One of his studies1 showed that in some parts of the Pacific, plastic outweighed plankton six to one. The enormous amount of plastic in the sea infiltrates the ecosystem and food chain. Plastic often entangles marine animals, causing them to choke or starve, and is also frequently mistaken for food. Particles have been found in the bellies of many marine animals including albatross2, seals3, dolphins4, and all seven species of sea turtles5. This is a global issue that hits close to home: in April 2010, a gray whale washed up near Seattle with a stomach full of trash, including more than twenty plastic bags6.

What we can see is scary, but there is more to the story than what meets the eye, and when we take a closer look it gets even more unsettling. Large pieces of petroleum-based plastic break down into tiny particles that never fully decompose. The chemical structures of these tiny pieces allow persistent organic pollutants to permeate and accumulate, and once incorporated into the food chain, the plastic particles (along with the pollutants) stay there7. This means that it is literally impossible to certify that a wild-caught fish is organic! We are at the top of the food chain, and we ingest the plastic that we put into it. Another scary thought is that we don’t know how long it will take for the ocean to cleanse itself of the plastic particles that exist already, let alone what we will contribute in the coming years.

So what can we do? Unfortunately, straining the ocean to remove existing litter is simply too costly, and would cause untold damage to marine life. We must stop the problem at its origin: our addiction to plastic. The first step is awareness. You’ll be surprised when you start paying attention to the plastics you encounter daily. See which plastics you can do without, and spread the word to friends and family. Recycle when you have to use plastic and if you find litter, pick it up- it will likely end up in the ocean if left to its own devices! Support bills that oppose the use of plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam, and plastic bottles. Bellingham’s bag bill passed in 20118, paving the way for Seattle9 and other Washington cities to follow suit.

Virtually every piece of plastic that man has created is still on Earth. Our heavy dependence on single-use, disposable plastic products just isn’t logical!











11 Responses to “The Secret Life of Plastic”

  • This is a really well written article, Amanda. What is really sad is how public the problem is because it is so global, someone using tons of plastic in China affects the PNW. It is interesting how clear it clear this problem is just walking along most beaches, yet it seems many people are not piecing together their plastic consumption is playing a role in the waste. Another problem is that our society is so imbedded in single use products that so many of the things in grocery stores are wrapped in mounds of plastic, so even if you go to the food coop and buy in bulk, you often put your food in a plastic bag and that is not even thinking about how wrapped in plastic most of the food people buy today is.
    by: Anna Bakeron: Sunday 17th of June 2012
  • This is a very thought provoking piece. It makes me wonder if the bag bans are doing enough good fast enough and how we should promote change in the culture to decrease the use of plastic, or how many other single-use things we're going to have to ban before we as a culture perks up and says "Oh wait, we can't just do whatever we want."
    by: Mary S.on: Monday 6th of August 2012
  • as mentioned plastic is a non biodegradable material. It will stay as it is for many years without degrading. Due to this soil is choked with plastic. As mentioned in another post this is a really though provoking article. Thanks for the same.
    by: Evans Wyatton: Thursday 18th of October 2012
  • Absolutely thought provoking article. Plastic is very dangerous element for the earth as is non biodegradable. So please avoid using plastic.
    by: Jenkinson: Sunday 4th of November 2012
  • Well written article. With growing pollution all over, plastic seems to be the most hostile element for the cause.  It is non bio degradable and already many countries have banned the use of plastics.
    by: Katelyn Kingon: Friday 23rd of November 2012
  • Good article. As population increases the use of plastic also increases. Serious steps should be taken to decrease the use of plastic. If this is not done, then there will b many ecological problems in future. It is good that many countries have banned the use of plastic.
    by: Rebecca Minuteon: Sunday 2nd of December 2012
  • A very though provoking article. Plastic is really harmful not only to humans, but also to animals. It has also brought about ecological imbalance. Let us put our hands together and decide against the sue of plastic so as to make the earth a greener place to live in.
    by: Clinique aidanon: Friday 14th of December 2012
  • It is true that plastic is harmful to all life on earth. But are each and every human being aware of this? Are we really doing our bit to the earth to make it a safe place to live in? Any change must first start from our houses, and then we can see the outside world. If each and everyone of us make up our mind not to use plastic, then it will make a huge difference.
    by: Evans Victoriaon: Saturday 22nd of December 2012
  • A very informative article.  I think if all the countries put their hands together and decide against the use of plastics, we would really make this earth a better place to lie in. Since it is  non-biodegradable, plastic causes a lot of problems for all life forms.
    by: Hill Lukeon: Thursday 24th of January 2013
  • I totally agree with everyone here. The use of plastics threatens all life forms. I once read that the plastic covers that are thrown in the sea cause a threat to fishes by clogging the water surface thus making it difficult for them to breathe. 
    by: perso Andreaon: Monday 4th of February 2013
  • Plastic is a non biodegradable material which clogs soil and water. It is harmful to humans and animals also. Nowadays there are  laws in some countries which ban the use of plastic. I hope that all the countries take the clue and impose this law.
    by: Logan Kingon: Monday 4th of March 2013

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