Drowning in Plastic

I’ve been living in Central America the last few months — Costa Rica, for the most part. There have been many interesting experiences along the way, but perhaps the most significant for me is access to the ocean. The Pacific Coast is just a couple hours away by bus. I’m almost 30 and, though I’ve lived all over the world, have never swum in the ocean before. The closest I came was dipping a toe into the East China Sea.

This week, I took a day off in order to make the trip to the beach town of Puntarenas. My companion and I walked along the beach looking for a suitable spot to lay out our stuff, but it wasn’t an easy search. The sand was littered with all kinds of trash, some ancient and weather-beaten, some apparently quite new. We finally found what seemed like an acceptable spot and laid out our blanket. When I sat down, I noticed a few feet from us an empty plastic motor oil container. (It could have been worse, check out this beach on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast.)

It wasn’t a great initial impression, but we’d traveled a long way to swim, so I shook it off and headed out to the water. Before I was up to my waist, I noticed something odd about the water. Oh, there was the odd piece of trash floating by: a strip of a plastic bag, the plastic rings from a six-pack. But I was seeing something much smaller. It was like the water was dirty, with little greyish specks — millions of them, within my field of vision. These weren’t plankton. As I looked closer I could tell they were tiny little pieces of plastic.

After all, we all know plastic isn’t biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still degrade. It degrades in a very unnatural way, slowly breaking up into tinier and tinier pieces, which, nevertheless, remain plastic. When the pieces are small enough they can be taken into the bodies of even small marine creatures, and carried up the food chain. Even human beings who eat a moderate amount of sea food have a certain amount of plastic in their body. These small irritants can cause all sorts of bodily problems, including cancer.

Of course, neither one of us could bring ourselves to dunk our head below water and add to our bodies’ plastic counts. We left after only 10 minutes of desultory wading, to make the two-hour trip back to our town.

You’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I’m sure. Scary as it is, you might be thinking  to yourself, “But at least I live on the Atlantic coast.” No such luck, friend. Plastic is everywhere. This Popular Mechanics article from only a year and a half ago discusses a 20-year study that revealed just how widespread the plastic contamination actually is.

Sure, you can go to a private resort and the beach looks pristine. People pay a lot of money to make sure they don’t go for a dip and find a used condom floating in the surf. But the plastic is still there, too small to see. Ubiquitous. Killing us.

An interesting side-note in that article I linked above is a map of the world’s ocean currents, which are basically a series of rough loops. I mentioned dipping my toe in the East China Sea. There’s a big loop which basically swings by most of China’s East Coast and most of North America’s West Coast. A friend of mine followed in my footsteps, deciding to move to China after I’d lived there for not quite a year. He, too, visited the ocean. In an email, he marvelled at the amount of trash on the beach and in the water. But he was surprised to find most of it — easily seen from the labels — had actually floated over from North America.

Likewise, Chinese trash ends up on Mexican or Canadian beaches, adding to and mixing with the local variety. The lesson is, there’s only one ocean. All countries (even the land-locked) contribute to polluting it, and all suffer the loss of its use. Though a motor oil container or condom is an upsetting sight, the real danger is the constant increase in the concentration of those invisible plastic particles every bit of trash is eventually worn down to. To swim in the clear, blue ocean, is already a risky business. For the next generation, it may be downright impossible.

I’m reminded of an old Native American proverb, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, but borrow it from our children.” Our legacy of plastic has already taken a severe toll on our oceans. I feel a little ripped off — the vast, pure ocean that all humankind had available to them until recently has been stolen away before my time. But of course, even with my switch to reusables a number of years ago, I’ve produced an incredible amount of plastic in my life. I stole it from myself.

Here’s a somewhat less profound, but perhaps equally relevant proverb: “Don’t pee in the public pool.”

Related stories:

Soup of Plastic Covers Two-Thirds of Ocean’s Surface

Random Acts of Caring: Help Reduce Plastic Waste

Watch the Long Journey of the Plastic Bag [Video]

Photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Martin Austin
Past Member 5 years ago

I stopped recycling when my local council refused to stop saving buildings from demolition, and cutting down trees, the carbon emissions they creat far outweigh my contributions, i just feel that if the people in power dont care, whats the point ? I d been recycling for many years before i stopped, now I no longer care,

Dylan G.
Dylan G5 years ago

I cannot stand when people do not take the time to recycle. We need a system where we do not have to burn huge amounts of plastic to reuse it.

Patricia Geraldes

Thanks for the article.

Alison No messages
Alison A5 years ago

Thanks for posting.

Elizabeth O.
.5 years ago

Thanks for posting.

Joe R.
Joe R5 years ago

Thanks Joel.

Linda Clarkson Pressman

ty i recycle and make ppl at work recycle also when im there i 2 use reusable bags when i go foodshopping

Valerie A.
Valerie A5 years ago


tammy B.
tammy B5 years ago

On a long term visit to South America, I was absolutely shocked at the amount of plastic everywhere... on the street, in the trees, in the canals used for irrigation and drinking for poor people who don't have potable water...the stores all use plastic bags, sell products in plastic containers....people don't tend to use the older traditional glass, metal and cloth containers now...even the poor use disposable diapers and dump in their own sources of water...very disheartening.... the traditional recycling of items is disappearing . Try to do what I can to talk to people about what can be done..and of course, practice by example

patricia m lasek
patricia lasek5 years ago

A prime example of why all people should recycle. Carrry reusable bags to the store when you go shopping.