How Trash in the Ocean Is Affecting Our Lives on Land
November 17, 2015
by Maya Weeks
When the past envisioned “the future,” I’m pretty sure it didn’t look like this. I would wager that it wasn’t full of hillsides on fire, population explosions of rattlesnakes and jellies, starving sea birds, choking sea turtles, and astronomical rates of cancer, depression, and other diseases among humans. Under capitalism, funded and sustained by petrochemical industries, plastics particles from “everyday” products are already affecting life on land, whether we are able to trace these causes or not.
We accept that what we put in our bodies affects our ability to function. We know that we are connected through the food we eat to the land from which we come. Common knowledge says that we either support our health by giving our selves beneficial nutrients or make things more difficult for our bodies by consuming particles that they are less—if at all—able to use. However, this presumes knowledge of and control over our environments, not to mention access and affordability that is fairly impossible to achieve in a society whose entire infrastructure is premised on the opacity of a continuous flow of toxic effluvia constantly entering the waste stream—a waste stream which is actually a closed loop.
“Waste,” Tobias Menley and Margaret Ronda point out in “Red,” “is value’s counterpart.” In the current economy, where a petroleum infrastructure fuels a transportation infrastructure that distributes commodities that break down into plastic particles in the ocean and enter the food chain at the level of plankton, value is predicated on extraction.
This system facilitates global trade on an unprecedented scale and produces, of course, record amounts of waste. Standing on land, we are not only shielded from what we are doing to the ocean, we are incapable of seeing what it is doing to us in return. But when we look closer and collect data, the results are astounding. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports 250.89 million tons of municipal solid waste generated in the United States in 2012 alone. According to the same study, approximately 12 percent of this waste is plastic. Once it enters the waste stream, this discarded material doesn’t necessarily adhere to its designated course. It gets picked up by wind en route to or from the landfill, or falls out of a container and into a stream, or never makes it into a bin in the first place. Debris travels across streets and fields and enters streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean. It is estimated that an approximate eight million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. In the Chesapeake Bay alone, the water in four tributaries resembles a plastic soup populated with microplastics, pieces of partially broken-down plastic that never quite decompose. Some of the most widespread and pervasive types of plastic pollution are microplastics, such as microbeads: tiny particles in personal hygiene products like soap, body wash, toothpaste, and facial cleansers. Often labeled as “polyethylene” or “polypropylene,” microplastics are small enough that plankton—which, along with algae and other marine microorganisms, constitute the base of the food web and the origins of fossil fuels—eat them. Fibres from synthetic fabrics which enter the waste stream through laundry cycles pose risks to aquatic life as well.
The concentration of pollutants in the water, resulting from plastic waste ranging from detergent jugs to nets to microbeads, poses unprecedented chemical threats to marine life and the rest of the global food web. Once ingested by plankton, these particles travel through the food web in krill, small fish, larger fish, and so on, impacting even the largest marine mammals and the humans who eat them. At the same time, endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates leach from bottles, jugs, and other plastic items at sea. Chemicals from plastics travel through the food web at all levels via currents, waste-water treatment effluent, shipping waste, and roads in a water cycle that has no planetary chokepoints. Unlike the logistics infrastructure on land, in the ocean there are no gates or toll roads. The ocean moves in a fluid circulation that may be illegible to those of us on land yet controls the global circulatory system of both climate and trade. Global currents, distorted by anthropogenic climate change, bring venomous sea snakes as well as fragments of plastic from major polluters like China to the California coast.
The human body, “a sponge for chemicals already out there,” says aquatic ecologist Chelsea Rochman, easily absorbs and is affected by plastics. Bodies sexed female are especially vulnerable to these chemicals. Two recent studies link mothers’ exposure to BPA, which is often found in food containers, to low birth weights in baby girls. BPA mimics hormones and can disrupt endocrine systems; fetal exposure to BPA may contribute to fetal developmental problems, according to a study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. BPA could bind to receptors and be stored in fat for release later—a significant problem for bodies sexed female at birth, which generally consist of more fat. In Nunavut, pregnant people have been advised not to eat beluga because of the high concentrations of mercury in the meat, and the Arctic Pollution Issues 2015 Summary for Policymakers warns that climate change exacerbated by the current fossil fuel economy is likely to release even greater numbers of contaminants as permafrost, ice, and snow melt.
The capitalist economy exploits the already dead—whose carbon has already transformed into oil or natural gas—for the profit of today. To minimize garbage—by reusing products, recycling, and resisting the transposition of disposability culture onto our relationships—would be to admit that capitalism doesn’t work. Just as certain sexed people bear the consequences of plastic bioamplification more than others, so too does the false strategy of choice fall disproportionately to those who perform reproductive labour in families and relationships. It often falls on women to manage our homes and care giving—from bathing to feeding to educating to transporting those to whom we are close. As primary caregivers for our families and in our relationships, it often falls on women to choose what products we use in our homes. This performance of choice can translate into “voting with our dollars” and other ineffective liberal strategies for change.
There is a dire need for structural solutions beyond individualistic quick fixes and single-minded policy-level changes such as banning microbeads. We need to find other ways of measuring value. In a culture where anything can be commodified and few can afford to access local, small-scale economies, resisting this culture beyond individualistic solutions such as “quit using plastic bags at home” is a challenge at best. But a consumerist economy of disposable products created from and transported by fossil fuels hasn’t always been the norm—“it was not until a railroad system, and later a network of pipelines, came to be monopolized by John D. Rockefeller that the modern oil industry was born,” writes Branden Adams—and it doesn’t have to be. In fact, if we want to survive the deregulation of global climate largely triggered by the death of the oceans (see: coral reef die-offs; overfishing; toxic algal blooms in increasingly warm waters; year after year of the most severe weather ever recorded; and mass displacement of populations due to resource scarcity), we must demand systemic, even revolutionary change. Rendering the supply chain visible is a key step toward realizing life on this planet after capitalism, and this illumination starts with the legibility of the relationship between our energy infrastructure and our food web.
Maya Weeks is an artist and writer currently working on a book about marine debris as byproduct of global capitalism.
“Closed Loop Dead Matter” is from our FOOD/LAND Issue (fall 2015)