The Plastic Problem

Message in a Bottle

Plastic garbage on the beach.
Plastic garbage on the beach. (Getty Images)


A year ago, my colleagues were bobbing around on a research boat, the E/V Nautilus, offshore California. They were sending a remotely operated submersible to the seafloor about 3,000 feet below them, to an area of the ocean that had never been seen by people.

I was teaching my Biological Oceanography class and couldn’t be on board.  But thanks to modern technology, I was able to remotely watch their activities from my computer screen back on shore. Everything they saw with their robot submarines I could see, too. It felt like we were making history : sending an explorer, albeit a computerized one, to the bottom of the ocean right in our backyard.

When the submarine reached the bottom on the very first day, the first thing scientists saw in this remote habitat was a plastic bottle.  Even in the places of the ocean where human eyes and hands have not yet reached, we have deposited trash.

plastic bottle in ocean

A plastic bottle in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary was researchers’ first glimpse into life in this remote habitat. (Courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary)

The rest of the expedition documented vibrant deep reefs, with sponges, corals, octopus, and fish , providing a window into how much we still have to learn about the ocean. But how do we grapple with the fact that we are already impacting environments that we’ve never visited?

Our plastic addiction

To address climate change, we have to confront our addiction to single-use plastics. Nearly all plastics are sourced from materials that are derived from fossil fuels and carry a carbon footprint of their own.

A few statistics:

Pair the personal with the public

So this is where I am supposed to say that your individual choices to stay away from plastic bags, pack lunches in reusable containers, and avoid plastic water bottles will make a big difference.

The problem with the “individual choices” emphasis on tackling climate change and plastic pollution is that it neglects the fact that our political system is deeply interwoven with fossil fuel companies and their interests. We need individual actions and collective ones, too.

woman and children explore tide pools

Tessa Hill, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, explores tide pools with a group of children by the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. (UC Davis)

Yes, we start by removing single-use plastics in every possible way from our lives. We can’t rely on recycling to solve this problem (because it won’t). Say no to plastic bags at the grocery store, individually wrapped pre-packaged items, online retailers that use plastic packaging, and plastic bottles and snacks served on airplanes, at work and school. Use this opportunity to break the chain of reliance upon fossil fuels in our very packaged lives.

Then, use your voice and your vote. Call your local, state and federal representatives and urge them to commit not simply to plastic straw bans — which discriminate against people who actually need straws and are essentially symbolic — but rather to a meaningful change in policy on plastic pollution. Show up at town hall meetings — and vote on election day — to make sure your voice is heard saying that we want large collaborative efforts to end plastic waste and remove fossil fuel subsidies that encourage the use of plastics.

Next, talk with people in your community — school districts, parks, organizers of community events, and other public entities — about actions to reduce waste. I did this recently in 5th- and 3rd-grade classrooms. We calculated the total amount of non-recyclable trash generated each day during lunchtime at school and then challenged the kids to wash reusable containers for their lunches instead of packing plastic bags and prepackaged items.

Our individual choices are more powerful when done in the context of the community and political system around us. Together, we can connect our reliance upon plastics to our ability to confront climate change, and leave the deep sea to the explorers.

Media Resources

Tessa Hill is a Professor in Earth & Planetary Sciences at UC Davis and studies the impacts of climate change on marine systems. She is the Associate Director of Academic Programs at the Coastal & Marine Sciences Institute. She can be found on Twitter at @Tessa_M_Hill and Instagram at @OceanClimateLab.

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