This is a small piece of plastic, shown under a microscope. Even minuscule pieces such as this can harm or kill small marine life. But even the sea’s giants aren’t immune: In April, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in southern Spain; it had 64 pounds of garbage — most of it plastic — in its digestive tract. / Photos courtesy Maia McGuire, UF/IFAS

In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) delivers these classic lines to new college grad Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman): “I just want to say one word to you. … Plastics. … There’s a great future in plastics.”

As it turns out, McGuire was correct. Plastics have come a long way since the 1960s, when glass containers held sway. Today, plastics are everywhere. They hold our drinks and foods, our emergency gasoline and, sometimes, even our bodies.


A Michigan company began manufacturing thermoplastic caskets several years ago. Its website says, “Thermoplastic materials have been used in many other industries for decades due to their inherently low cost, weight savings and superior durability.” (Editor’s note: Thermoplastics can be recycled.)

Plastics are double-edge sword

Unfortunately, we pay a price for the convenience — cheap, lightweight, durable — of all these plastics: Unless recycled, they virtually never disappear. That isn’t such a problem for the largest plastic objects, such as natural-gas pipelines or sewage-treatment-plant outfalls, since they are meant to last for decades or much longer.

However, those plastic cups, lids and straws — used by the fast-food industry and others — are, too often, not recycled. And what about plastic bottles, such as those used for water? About “480 billion plastic bottles were sold worldwide in 2016. That is up from about 300 billion only a decade ago” (earthday.org).

The problem of recyclable plastic containers ending up in landfills is bad enough. But what about the ones thrown into the ocean, or alongside a roadway, or otherwise disposed of improperly? They tend to break down into smaller pieces — in some cases, ending up as tiny pieces called “microplastics.”

Maia McGuire, Ph.D., serves as the multi-county Sea Grant agent for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension office in Bunnell, about 70 miles south of Jacksonville.

She says that in waterways, these tiny shards could be causing problems: “Depending on the type of marine life, there are concerns that microplastics could impact the ability of organisms to feed properly — for example, by clogging their digestive systems — and/or that plastics could introduce chemical pollutants into organisms.”

Maia McGuire displays pieces of plastic that she picked up on a beach.

Pollution from plastics affects entire food chain

McGuire adds, “Some of these pollutants are suspected endocrine disruptors or are known to be toxic — PCBs, DDTs, for example. Microplastics are a particular concern because very small animals — at the base of the food chain — can and do eat them, so there is the potential for effects to be magnified up the food chain.”

Although microplastics didn’t kill the pilot whale that died in Thailand on June 1, plastics did. On Monday, May 28, the distressed whale was found in a canal, and rescuers tried to stabilize it. On Friday, though, after vomiting up five plastic bags, the whale died. A necropsy found 80 plastic bags, weighing a total of 17.6 pounds, in its stomach. Researchers believe that the whale, which feeds mainly on squid, mistook the bags for food.

In April, a young 33-foot sperm whale that washed up on a beach in southern Spain had 64 pounds of garbage — most of it plastic — in its digestive tract. Other items included ropes and parts of nets.

China can raise U.S. garbage rates

In January of this year, China stopped allowing the importation of recyclable materials from various countries, including the United States. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection cited concerns about potential contamination from recyclable waste materials such as plastics, textiles and paper.

According to the Jan. 11, 2018, New York Times, Steve Frank of Oregon owns two plants “that collect and sort 220,000 tons of recyclable materials each year. A majority of it was until recently exported to China. ‘My inventory is out of control,’ he said.”

China’s decision has produced financial consequences for at least one Oregon city. The Hillsboro (Oregon) City Council in May voted to raise the city’s garbage rates “in response to rising costs associated with sorting materials and finding new facilities to process the city’s recyclable garbage,” according to a story in The Oregon Patch newspaper (patch.com/oregon/hillsboro). That increase took effect on June 1.

Many recyclable materials are piling up around the world, due in many cases to China’s refusal to accept them. In the Western United States, the situation is particularly dire. Let’s hope the problem doesn’t spread eastward.

For more information about plastics consumption, visit earthday.org/2018/04/18/fact-sheet-how-much-disposable-plastic-we-use.