In today’s world, plastic is everywhere. It’s found in shoes, clothing, household items, electronics, and more. There are different types of plastics, but one thing they all have in common is that they’re made of polymers—large molecules made up of repeating units. Their chemical structure gives them a lot of advantages: They’re cheap and easy to manufacture, lightweight, water-resistant, durable, and can be molded into nearly any shape.
Unfortunately, some of the same properties that make plastics great for consumer goods make them a problem pollutant. Plastic’s durability comes in part from the fact that unlike paper or wood, it doesn’t biodegrade, or break down naturally. “Instead it just fragments, or breaks into pieces over time,” says Jambeck. Those tiny pieces, known as microplastic, can potentially stick around for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years.