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Ocean Microplastics Have Now Been Discovered 9,000 Feet up a French Mountain
We're going to breathe ourselves to death if we don't stop the fossil fuel industry
My wife and I were halfway through our glorious five-month backpacking journey through Central America.
We’d purchased one-way tickets and were traveling from the Panama Canal all the way to Mexico, volunteering at eco-villages, organic farms, and hippie communes along the way.
I was so excited to visit Lake Nicaragua.
It’s been called one of the natural wonders of the world.
At 100 miles in length, Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America and a top twenty in the world. It’s one of the only lakes to have freshwater sharks — they swim up the San Juan River rapids like salmon. (Terrifying, I know!)
It was a hot summer day when we sauntered from Granada down to the nation’s largest source of fresh water. Maybe we’d go swimming. Maybe we’d buy a shaved ice treat from one of the local vendors. Maybe we’d spot a bull shark.
After cresting a hill, the lake came within view.
We gasped with horror.
The lake’s surface was covered with plastic soda bottles for as far as the eye could see.
Short-term profits, long-term problems
Plastic exists for a singular reason:
For the private profit of shareholders at the public and planet’s expense.
Most plastics are the byproduct of fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum. Plastic is just another profit center for fossil fuel waste products.
Natural plastic has been around forever —people in Central America were making rubber bands over 3500 years ago —but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that Alexander Parkes patented the first man-made plastic in 1855. Synthetic plastics really took over after World War I, and since 1950, we’ve produced more than 202,400,000,000,000 pounds of plastic.
In other words, for 99+% of human history, we managed just fine without plastic. Then, in the past seventy years, the fossil fuel industry poisoned the entire earth with hazardous material that will long outlive the human species.
But we’re not slowing down.
In 2020, the fossil fuel industry produced over 400,000,000 tonnes of plastic. If they keep on their current trajectory — and there are no signs that suggest they will deviate whatsoever — global plastic production will reach over 1.1 billion tonnes per year by 2050.
Speaking of 2050: That’s the year scientists predict there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight than fish.
Plastic is the air we breathe
“The marine source is the most interesting, plastic leaving the ocean into the air that high — it shows there is no eventual sink for this plastic. It’s just moving around and around in an indefinite cycle.” — Steve Allen, Dalhousie University
Every minute, a dump truck's worth of plastic is chucked into the ocean.
Even from a money-hungry capitalist perspective, this is stupid. 95% of all plastic is used just once before being thrown away — and all that wasted plastic is worth $80+ billion per year.
But no matter, plastic now litters our streets, highways, forests, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Plastics leech into our water systems.
Micro-plastics have made their way into Arctic snow.
Micro-plastics have made their way into human lungs.
Micro-plastics have made their way into babies.
Micro-plastics have made their way into placentas.
One would think that plastics eventually make their way to the ocean, floating around in giant piles like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch before eventually sinking to the ocean floor.
Instead, plastic is now getting caught up in the hydrological cycle. (Remember how it works? Evaporation… condensation… precipitation…)
Scientists have discovered microplastics from Africa in the French Pyrenees, a whopping 9,438 feet above sea level. But they can go far lower and far higher. Microplastics can reach the bottom of the Mariani Trench, and well above Mount Everest. In fact, microplastics are already soaring around the Earth’s troposphere, whipped vast distances along the windy super-highway of our once-glorious atmosphere.
There is quite literally nowhere we can go to escape from the plastics that the fossil fuel industry has littered into our biosphere. It’s killing fish, animals, ecosystems, and humans.
Frankly, it is a crime against humanity and the future — all fossil fuel executives should all be tried at The Hague.
So… what can we do?
The fix is obvious: Ban fossil fuel companies from creating any more consumer plastics.
But clearly, that will never happen.
And asking our (s)elected politicians won’t work, because they already work for the oil industry.
We have to directly de-fund these planet-killers ourselves.
If you own a pension or a mutual fund or an S&P 500 index, you are personally profiting from the death of people and this planet.
If you consider yourself a good, religious, or ethical person, you have a moral duty to call your broker today and sell off all fossil fuel stocks and the stocks of all other companies in your portfolio that create plastics.
De-fund the oil industry
Switch to an EV.
Localize your life.
We need to kick the fossil fuel addiction.
Because as long as there are fossil fuels, the industry will make plastic with their leftovers.
Stop using plastic water bottles
This isn’t hard to do.
I haven’t purchased a bottle of water in over ten years.
Buy yourself a Kleen Kanteen and commit to never buying a water bottle ever again.
Same goes for soda bottles. Either go with a glass or can or skip it altogether.
Stop using single-use plastic bags
This isn’t hard to do.
We keep our canvas bags in the trunk of our car.
On the rare occasion we forget them, we ask the grocery cashier for a paper bag or an old cardboard box. If they don’t have either, we just carry out our groceries by hand.
Stop buying plastic products
This isn’t hard to do.
Just buy soap and shampoo in bar form, either unwrapped or wrapped in paper.
Buy your cleaning detergent from a bulk store that lets you refill your own containers.
Stop buying packaged goods
This is especially hard to do in Europe, where mega-market chains like Tesco plastic wrap everything from apples to broccoli.
That’s why my wife and I are making the switch to hyper-local: to farm shops that don’t wrap any of their vegetables.
There are plenty of other ways to get plastic out of your diet — stop smoking, quit using straws like a four-year-old, stop ordering take-out from corner-cutting restaurants, take part in a river clean-up, and so forth.
But frankly, I’m not bullish on humanity’s will to purge the earth of plastic. It’s a slow-moving train crash, and because the effects aren’t immediately obvious, short-termism makes us believe atmospheric plastic isn’t a real threat to humanity’s longest-term widest-spread wellbeing.
But it is.
Do your part. That’s all you can do. Live blamelessly, and enjoy a clean-ish world while you still can. Sit on your front porch, rock on a swing, and have a drink with your neighbor.
Just be sure to serve it in a glass.
Without a straw.
Jared A. Brock is an award-winning biographer, PBS documentarian, and the cell-free founder of the popular futurist blog Surviving Tomorrow, where he provides thoughtful people with contrarian perspectives on the corporatist anti-culture. His writing has appeared in Esquire, The Guardian, Smithsonian, USA Today, and TIME Magazine, and he has traveled to more than forty countries including North Korea. Join 20,000+ people who follow him on Medium, Twitter, and Substack.