Turquoise waters crash onto a gleaming white beach of crushed coral and sand. Green palm trees dot the horizon. Hundreds of birds occupy the sky while shoaling fish traverse the shallows.
All this complete with a dramatic cloud-swept sky in the background looks like paradise.
This is Clipperton Island, the most remote atoll in the world. An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef formed by an extinct seamount or volcano with a lagoon in the centre where the caldera used to be. In this way, Clipperton is essentially a halo of land surrounded by coral reefs.
It took my party of explorers and environmentalists about 96 hours of travel time by boat from San Jose del Cabo to reach the island; a slightly more than 800-mile trek across the Pacific. It appeared perfect at first glance but upon closer inspection, a much more flawed landscape came into focus. One bearing an ugly human fingerprint that has yet to leave any natural habitat on Earth untouched – plastic.
There is no doubt that we currently live in the Anthropocene, a period of geological history defined and shaped by the activities of man. And sadly, plastic is our calling card. We dump about 8 million tons of it into our world ocean annually and it is estimated, at this current trajectory, that there will be a larger volume of plastic than fish in the ocean by mid century.
These are a few startling of the statistics that most people don’t know:
- Plastic is made to last forever but 33% of it is used once and then discarded;
- 85% of the world’s plastic is not even recycled and we throw away 500 million plastic straws every day just in the U.S.; and,
- As recently reported in National Geographic, “There are $5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea.”
Never have I been hit so profoundly by these numbers than when I took my first steps onto Clipperton Island, the world’s most remote atoll. I could not move my feet without stepping on plastic.
While the plastic refuse was not directly thrown onto the island, we might as well have done this given our improper disposal and indulgent bonanza-style use of it.
And I am not talking about just plastic bottles and stray flip-flops. The sand was littered with everything from refrigerators to razors, trinkets to toothbrushes, and medical waste to microplastics. Every shape, size, colour, and variety of plastic you can think of, all represented on one island that has not been inhabited since before the plastic revolution took off during WWII.
Objectively speaking, plastic is a miraculous, diverse, and durable material. The problem is our terrible mismatch of it to its uses. We should obviously be phasing out plastic, so why do we keep making more of it? Because it is cheap.
It is artificially made to be even less expensive by way of the petroleum subsidies that ensure the continued success of the plastics industry at the expensive of our own health and that of our planet’s. In 2006, 17 million barrels of oil were required to produce plastic water bottles for the U.S. alone, and that is excluding energy for transportation.
So here we are at the end of our plastic story. It takes knowledge, effort, and will power to resist the favorable economics of our throw-away societies. We must reject single use plastics and choose reusable options instead. Say no to plastic straws and carry metal or glass ones with us. Resist plastic bags. Be aware of how to properly dispose of your garbage.
Biodegradable plastics and other environmentally friendly options are becoming more available. We should be prepared to temporarily pay a bit more for them until they become mainstream. We still have time to fix things, but not much. We can use our human knack for innovation to generate solutions that ensure a cleaner, more sustainable future.
We can choose how this story ends if we all start writing the new narrative, together.
In the meantime:
- Do beach cleanups whenever possible;
- Remain active in your community and vote for politicians who stand up for the environment instead of trashing it for profit; and,
- Most importantly, be a good example.
It’s time to take stock of what we value most in this world if we want to continue to enjoy beautiful sandy beaches and a natural world free from plastic litter. I would highly recommend seeing the film A Plastic Ocean by Craig Leeson, for a crash course on the extensive damage plastic is doing to our planet and ourselves. It changed how I see the plastic problem, and I can only hope it will do the same for you.