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A visit to a home center in Tokyo, where I live, is to fully immerse in the spectrum of plastics: carbon-fiber this, Teflon that, shelves full of plastic artificial turf, plastic faux-wood floors, shiny-plastic rice cookers and coffee makers, plastic plants in plastic pots; shampoo, soap, skin lotions and make-up packaged in every color of the plastic rainbow. Even 60% of our clothes are made from synthetic fibers (plastic): aisle upon aisle of cheap, polyester, Lycra and acrylic clothing, spanning all age groups from cradle to grave, hanging on racks in neat rows. Finally, consumers wait patiently in line, pushing plastic shopping carts, preparing to pile their purchases onto a plastic conveyor belt, to be scanned by a clerk into a plastic-encased cash register, paid for with a plastic credit card, before stuffing it all into single-use plastic bags to be carried home.
Now, after decades of overuse of single-use plastic, the planet is literally drowning in the plastic we have thrown away. By 2017, the world had produced a grand total of 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, more than one ton for every person on the planet. Most of it, 6.3 billion metric tons, can be found in landfill sites, but another 8 million metric tons of plastic enters our oceans each year because roughly two billion people live within 30 miles (48 kilometers) of the sea. Plastic is literally in every corner of the planet. In 2019, researchers found microplastic in Arctic ice in greater concentrations than in the surrounding Arctic Ocean waters. The same year, explorers found plastic in the Marianas Trench in the Pacific, the deepest point on the planet. Forty-six percent of the mass of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of “ghost” plastic fishing nets lost by fishermen. Plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces – of plastic – and zooplankton, minute organisms that form the very foundation of the marine food chain, ingest these microparticles, absorbing toxins and less nutrient-rich food. The toxins are then passed up the food chain by predators, and accumulate, most affecting those at the top of the fish-consuming chain, for example sharks, toothed whales, seals, seabirds, and us. According to an Australian study in 2015, 90% of seabirds ingest plastic. Some seabirds have been found with so much plastic stuck in their stomachs that there was no room left for food. Slowly they starve. This series explores the environmental plague of plastic waste that bears down hardest on the developing world, but the challenge of plastic waste disposal spares no country.
James Whitlow Delano
James Whitlow Delano is represented by Sipa Press in France, by Photo Op in Italy, and by Laif in Germany.