Our Planet Is Drowning in Plastic Pollution, But Several Solutions Are Already Here—Thanks to Human Ingenuity
By Jon Hersey
Fionn Fereira grew up on the majestic southern coast of Ireland, but by the time he was twelve, he was noticing a strange sheen in the water. It was caused by microplastics, tiny plastic particles no more than 5mm long, which no one knew how to get rid of.
These microplastics are the end of the known life cycle for the ubiquitous plastic products we’ve come to rely on: milk jugs, condiment containers, candy wrappers, pens, printers, toys, toothbrushes, toilet seats, and so on ad infinitum. We are surrounded by plastic. It’s waterproof, malleable, and durable, which is why we’ve used it to make just about everything since it was first invented in the early 20th century.
But today we know that its durability also poses serious problems.
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The Downside of Durability
Under most conditions, plastics take hundreds of years to break down, meaning most of the 8.3 billion tons of it produced since the early 1950s still exists. The most comprehensive study estimates that only 12 percent has been incinerated and 9 percent recycled. The remaining 79 percent is in landfills or littered about somewhere. Much of the latter ends up in the ocean—some 8 million tons of it per year.
Hence the Great Pacific Garbage patch, a massive gyre of microplastics, bottles, bags, fishing nets, and other refuse between California and Hawaii. Varying with wind conditions and weather, its size is estimated to be between that of Texas and twice the size of France. Some say that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (937 million tons of plastic and 895 million tons of fish). There’s also Henderson Island, which sits in the middle of the Pacific, some 3,300 miles from South America and 3,200 miles from New Zealand. Although remote, uninhabited, and half the size of Manhattan, currents have washed ashore some nineteen tons of trash, giving its white sand beaches a higher density of debris than any other place on Earth.
Animals all over the world get caught in plastic debris. Many are maimed or killed by it. And many others mistake it for food. One study found plastic in the stomachs of 90 percent of the birds examined, and another found it in 100 percent of sea turtles looked at. Plankton, eaten by all sorts of other sea creatures, have also been observed eating plastic in lab experiments.
Plastic … for Dinner?
Unsurprisingly, plastics are now a part of the human food chain. In a study by scientists from Brunel University London and the University of Hull, microplastics were found in all of the mussels analyzed, which were taken from eight different areas of the UK’s coastline, and from eight different supermarkets. Based on their findings, they predict that consumers who eat these shellfish, long thought of as the purifiers of the ocean, will ingest “70 microplastic items [per] 100 g processed mussels.” Plastic was also found in one third of fish caught in the UK. “The sea is feeding human garbage back to us,” writes Philip Hoare in The Guardian.
In a small study of people in Europe, Russia, and Japan, every participant had microplastics in his stool. Medical University of Vienna researcher, Philipp Schwabl, who led the study, said: “This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut. Of particular concern is what this means to us, and especially patients with gastrointestinal diseases.”
A Doggy Bag, Please . . .
Plastic pollution is a big problem. Decrying our “throwaway” culture, people increasingly look to government to somehow regulate it out of existence. One-hundred and twenty-seven countries now have some sort of regulations on plastic, some stricter than others. In 2017, Kenya passed the harshest ban, threatening those who manufacture, distribute, or sell so-called “single-use” plastics with up to a $40,000 fine or four years in jail.
Some have applauded the ban as a success, the government claiming that 80 percent of Kenyans no longer use the illicit plastics. Yet, as one headline put it, “Despite [its] pioneering ban, Kenya is drowning in single-use plastic.” Professor Judi Wakhungu, who instituted the ban in her previous role as Kenya’s minister for environment and natural resources, reflected in 2020 that “Wanton littering is sadly a part of Kenya’s culture, irrespective of socio-economic status. And beyond this, no one wants to take responsibility for their litter.”
Whether or not this and other bans are working, many now acknowledge that such measures definitely do have unintended consequences. Although shoppers in Thailand began using wheelbarrows, luggage, and plastic buckets to transport their groceries following the country’s plastic bag ban in 2020, people elsewhere typically opt for paper bags. But, Wired reports, “One of the most comprehensive research papers on the environmental impact of bags, published in 2007 by an Australian state government agency, found that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic. That’s primarily because more energy is required to produce and transport paper bags.”
According to a 2011 study by the Northern Ireland Assembly, “It takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag” and “91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper.”
A 2020 United Nations life cycle assessment of single-use plastic bags and their alternatives echoed these findings, saying that paper bags may outscore plastic only if manufactured using renewable energy, reused multiple times, incinerated after use instead of ending up in a landfill, and/or if compared to thicker than average plastic bags.
Biodegradable plastic bags, often allowed as alternatives, cut down on litter. But, surprisingly, the UN assessment concluded that biodegradables “might be the worst option when it comes to climate impacts, acidification, eutrophication, and toxic emissions.” In short, they’re not the eco-friendly solution many think them to be.
Cloth bags are the most energy-intensive alternative, also requiring cotton and thus arable lands and the machines to tend them. Cultivating cotton requires about 5,000 gallons of water per pound which, Wired notes, is more “than any vegetable and most meats.” One study calculated that distributing cloth bags requires eighty times the number of ships as for plastic bags and, likewise eighty times as much fuel, resulting in eighty times as much emissions. “A cotton bag needs to be used 50-150 times to have less impact on the climate compared to one SUPB [single-use plastic bag],” says the UN assessment. Yet, a Canadian study confirmed that “re-usable grocery bags can become an active microbial habitat and a breeding-ground for bacteria, yeast, mould, and coli forms,” one reason many locales banned them at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s more, “single-use” plastics often are reused, and banning them from stores has had unintended results. A recent poll showed that most Americans save and reuse plastic containers and bags. When locales ban stores from providing these bags at checkout, people end up purchasing plastic bags to use instead, and these tend to be thicker and thus take longer to break down.
My town, Franklin, Massachusetts, for instance, banned plastic bags in grocery and retail stores. Have you ever seen someone pick up dog poop with a paper bag? Me neither. For the first time in my life, I’ve had to purchase plastic bags to clean up after my dogs and to use in the small trash cans in my office and bathrooms. A 2019 study shows that in places with bans such as that in my town, consumer sales of the typically thicker plastic bags jumped by as much as 120 percent. Overall, it concluded, “bag bans shift consumers towards fewer but heavier bags.”
‘The Ultimate Resource’ for Solving the Plastic Problem
Plastic bag bans exemplify Henry Hazlitt’s observation that there is a “persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.”
This is one reason that government “solutions” to plastic pollution tend to be hamfisted. Another is that governments have essentially only one tool at their disposal, and a particularly blunt one at that: physical force. “Do as we say or else.” This is not exactly cutting edge, creative problem-solving.
For real, lasting, powerful solutions to pollution problems, we need to rely on a different tool. We need to tap into what Julian Simon called “the ultimate resource”: the human mind. In particular, we should look to the innovators who are fired up about finding creative solutions to such problems, people such as Fionn Fereira.
Magnetic Water, Beach-Cleaning Robots, and Plastic Roads, Oh My!
Intrigued as a teen by the microplastics problem, Fereira observed one day that a rock along the seashore of his native Ballydehob, Ireland was smeared with oil—and that, for some reason, microplastics were sticking to it. “I asked myself: ‘Why is this happening?’ I did a bit more research and I found out that plastic particles are what we call non-polar, and oil is non-polar too. And in chemistry likes attract likes, which means that non-polar things attract non-polar things.”
In a high school science class, he learned about ferrofluid, a magnetic liquid made of tiny iron particles suspended in oil. He made his own, running hundreds of experiments to figure out which oil works best (light vegetable oil), using this to attract microplastics, then extracting the mixture with a magnet. His method removes an unprecedented 87 percent of microplastics from water—a supremely satisfying thing to watch.
Now a student at the University of Groningen, Ferreira is experimenting with devices for water treatment plants. He’s also working on a device that can be mounted on ships so they can continuously clean water as they sail around the globe.
Or consider Toby McCartney, whose company MacRebur is blending discarded plastics with tar to pave roads. According to McCartney, tests show these roads are up to 60 percent more durable than standard roads and last up to ten times as long. Plus, each ton of MacRebur mix contains the equivalent of some 80,000 plastic bottles.
Then there is Quebec-based Poralu Marine, which is deploying solar-powered beach-cleaning robots that pick up trash thirty times faster than a human could, getting even tiny plastics that humans miss. The remote-controlled BeBot can clean 33,000 square feet of beach per hour and its “innovative design also helps the preservation of biodiversity as it prevents the compression of turtles’ eggs and any vegetal ecosystem in the sand,” says Claire Touvier of the environmental solutions team at Poralu.
Not every solution requires even this much science or technology. In his TEDx talk, McCartney tells the story of a man in India who collected plastic bottles from a dump, then used them to make a sort of poor man’s air conditioning. He cut the bottles in half, putting their small spouts through a board, and the board in front of a window. Just as pursing your lips cools your exhalation, so pushing hot air through the small part of the bottles cools a room by as much as 5 degrees Celsius. In a country where people are killed by periodic heat waves, this man’s ingenuity is saving lives.
“The more we asked the ‘What if?’ question, the more that we found more solutions,” McCartney reflects. “By creating a consistent culture of ‘What ifs?,’ you can turn your great ideas into a wonderful reality.”
Explaining his techniques, Ferreira says, “It’s not only about my method. I want to get other people inspired to look at creative thinking and creative ways to solve problems. Because, of course, this is only one problem. There are many more left to solve.”