The (After)Life of Plastics

When we dispose* of plastics, they never really disappear. Plastics live on in bodies of water, are passed around through ecosystems (big and small), and even weasel their way inside the bodies of animals, human and nonhuman alike. In the best case scenario, plastics are entombed inside capped landfills that they will undoubtedly outlast. No one really knows how long plastics remain in the environment, but they are manufactured to endure.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate course at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, entitled Marine Debris in the Pacific Ocean. The course examined the contemporary scientific literature regarding the ‘afterlives’ of ocean plastics. Once plastics end up in the ocean, they photodegrade, meaning that they are broken down indefinitely (by sun, waves, and wind) into smaller and smaller plastic pieces, which are eventually known as microplastics. During this process, plastics are sometimes ingested by fish, plankton, and other animals. They become entangled in wildlife, serve as rafts for invasive species, and even absorb hormone disrupting chemicals. Depending on where they end up, some plastics will combine with coral and lava, forming a new type of rock that scientists have coined ‘plastiglomerate‘.

In order to examine these processes, my class worked on several scientific research projects on Hawai’i Island’s Kamilo beach. Here, plastics were variously sorted, counted, photographed, collected, placed in garbage bags, and discarded.

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Last week, Dr. Max Liboiron of Memorial University photographed two pieces of plastics that I collected from Kamilo: the first, a piece of ‘shark bitten plastic’ (or sharkastic); the second, a fragment of plastiglomerate. Her pictures highlight the very social and material consequences of plastics that become part of ocean ecosystems. Like most plastics in the ocean, these pieces are scratched, fouled, chewed on, and weathered– a display of  anthropogenic ocean ecology, to be inherited by future generations.

All photos have been made available by Max through a creative commons license.

For further reading, see:

Carson, H. (2013). The incidence of plastic ingestion by fishes: From the prey’s perspective. Marine Pollution Bulletin

Carson et al. (2013). The plastic-associated microorganisms of the North Pacific Gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Eriksen et al. (2014) Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE.

Liboiron, M. (2015). Redefining pollution and action: The matter of plastics. Journal of Material Culture.

Liboiron, M. (2014) Modern waste is an economic strategy. Discard Studies blog.

*This is not to say that ‘disposal’ is to blame for plastics ending up in the ocean. Rather, the role of government and industry in allowing the creation and continued use and proliferation of these products in the first instance, is a more useful target for activists and others concerned with the effects of ocean plastics.

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