Where does our plastic go?

| July 22, 2014

We throw things out every day, but rarely consider where our garbage goes. Each American disposes about seven pounds of trash daily, nearly 70 percent of which heads straight to landfills, according to NPR.

We have a trash crisis, and the most pressing problem may be plastic waste. As the New York Times’ editorial board recently wrote, “Like diamonds, plastics are forever.” What can we do about lingering traces of plastic when we produce millions of tons of the material worldwide each year?

plastic bottles

Plastic bottles litter a beach in Norway. From Bo Eide.

In the U.S., approximately 9 percent of plastics are recycled, while most are sent to landfills. Still, they manage to end up in our waterways and oceans, with scientists spotting a garbage patch potentially containing over 30,000 tons of plastic in the Pacific in the last year. Vox points out, however, that that number only accounts for less than 1 percent of the material that researchers think exists in the oceans — so where’s the rest?

Scientists suspect that many fish and wildlife are consuming plastics at an alarming rate. Anecdotal evidence suggests they may be right. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times ran a story  about albatrosses that had swallowed sizable pieces of plastic, their stomachs found filled with toys, lures, and debris. NPR reported in 2013 that the potential health risks associated with consuming fish that may have eaten plastics could build with time. As researcher Chelsea Rochman told NPR, people eat “seafood all the time, and fish are eating plastic all the time, so I think that’s a problem.” Right now, though, most health professionals seem to think that the health rewards of eating fish outweigh any possible plastic-related dangers.

So where’s the best place for the 99 percent of plastic not floating on the ocean’s surface? The ideal scenario, according to Science Magazine, may be that most plastics are simply sinking to the ocean floor, largely left untouched.

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Category: Plastic, Pollution, Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Born and raised on the East End of Long Island, Michael quickly learned to escape to New York City. He studies literature and linguistics, considers himself a cinephile and coffee addict, and follows political campaigns religiously. When he's not refreshing SCOTUSblog, he's probably eating or editing (or attempting both at the same time). He is proudly left-handed.

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