Invisible Plastic: What happens when your garbage ends up in the ocean

Plastic is ubiquitous in our modern lives – a $17.6 billion industry in Canada alone that makes everything from shopping bags to packaging to clothing. It’s made our lives much more convenient and until recently we haven’t thought much about the fact that we throw a lot of it away after just one use, let alone what happens to the plastic that finds its way into the world’s oceans.

In Invisible Plastic, award-winning science writer Alanna Mitchell sets out on a quest to find out just what happens to plastic on the high seas. Her story is riveting, and essential reading for every concerned Canadian.

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Invisible Plastic

Invisible Plastic

On board the SSV Corwith Cramer, north of Bequia, Caribbean Sea

In the old-fashioned sense of the word, plastic means something that can change into something else. It’s pliable, transformative, maybe metaphoric, certainly shifty. In the modern sense, plastic is a substance made from crude petroleum engineered into chains of molecules so freakishly long that they are both supple and unbreakable.

Unknown at the beginning of the last century, uncommon until after the Second World War, plastics now permeate everyday life in ways we barely keep track of. We use these man-made molecules to wrap and carry food, mass produce juice and water containers, fashion intravenous bags and syringes and polar fleeces, insulate homes, make car parts and air bags and baby carriers, record music and even create artificial human hearts. It’s been said, with only a touch of exaggeration, that plastics make modern life possible.

And while some of these plastics are made to be useful for years, many are one-use wonders designed to be tossed away. The problem is that the very characteristics that make plastics versatile also make them immortal. While other materials eventually get broken down by bacteria or other processes into the minerals that made them, plastics don’t. They live on, breaking down only into smaller and smaller pieces of themselves.

Much of that plastic ends up in landfills, and scientists are increasingly worried about its effects on groundwater, human health and wildlife. But a vast amount also ends up in the ocean, making ever larger tracts of indestructible plastic trash in the great, living basins of the sea. The most famous, but not the only one or even necessarily the biggest, is the Pacific garbage patch north of Hawaii that news outlets have focused on in recent years. But scientists have found plastic litter in every single part of the ocean no matter how far from human civilization, from the floor of the Arctic Ocean to the surface of the waters surrounding Antarctica to the deepest reaches of the abyss, where it acts like a sponge soaking up toxic chemicals we have also dumped in the sea.

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