Plastic pollution is a widespread issue. Plastic trash has been spotted in just about every part of the world’s seas, even remote places like the Mariana Trench—the deepest point in the ocean. “I do a lot of my research out in the open ocean,” says Anne Thompson, a biological oceanographer at Portland State University in Oregon. “It’s shocking and depressing how much plastic is out there.”
In terms of innovation, plastic has been a miraculous invention. The substance is a polymer containing large molecules organized into repeating units. It’s durable, it’s cheap, and it can be transformed into just about anything. Plastics also have a vast range of properties, from strong and virtually unbreakable (think Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests) to flimsy and flexible (think plastic wrap and shopping bags). But these same qualities are also what make plastic a problem.
Once manufactured, plastic sticks around for a long, long time. Throwing it away doesn’t mean it’s gone. Most plastic isn’t biodegradable. It doesn’t break down in the environment like food, cotton, wood, and other natural substances do. Plastic decomposes extremely slowly, if at all. That explains why it keeps piling up on the planet—and showing up in places where it doesn’t belong, like the ocean. By the year 2050, experts predict, Earth’s oceans will contain more plastic trash, by weight, than fish!