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A Pacific Standard Reading List for World Environment Day

Without action, there will be more plastic than fish in the world's ocean by mid-century.
Plastic wastes fill a beach on April 18th, 2018, in Manila, Philippines.

Plastic wastes fill a beach on April 18th, 2018, in Manila, Philippines. 

Today is World Environment Day. Every June 5th since 1974, the United Nations has drawn attention to various environmental issues in order to "drive change in our consumption habits as well as in national and international environmental policy." This year, the U.N. is focused on reducing plastic pollution.

"Our world is swamped by harmful plastic waste. Every year, more than 8 million tonnes end up in the oceans. Microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. From remote islands to the Arctic, nowhere is untouched. If present trends continue, by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic than fish," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. "On World Environment Day, the message is simple: reject single-use plastic. Refuse what you can't re-use."

In honor of the day, Pacific Standard gathered some of our recent coverage of the scale of plastic pollution and why reducing single-use consumption won't be enough to save the oceans.

1. Plastic Doesn't Really Disappear, It Just Breaks Down Into Smaller and Smaller Pieces

Most of the plastic produced since 1950 is still sitting in landfills, according to a 2017 study Pacific Standard covered last year:

About 30 percent of all plastics made since the middle of the 20th century are still in use, but the vast majority of plastic waste, it turns out, is still around as well. Just 12 percent has been incinerated—a process that presents its own environmental and public-health perils—and only 9 percent was recycled.

2. Those Tiny Plastic Fragments Are Pretty Much Everywhere

This year, Morgan Baskin documented how microscopic plastic fibers have infiltrated freshwater resources in some of the most remote regions of the United States:

It's hovering around 10 degrees and snowing sideways in west Yellowstone, country so thick with grizzlies the state urges hikers to travel in packs of no less than four. This place is a crystalline kind of flawless, a vast wilderness where bison have roamed, uninterrupted, since prehistory. But as remote as it is, my guide has brought me here to illustrate how significantly the land has changed. Miles from our car and a 30-minute drive from the nearest civilization—and armed with a GPS tracker that, if alerted, would dispatch a helicopter to our rescue—I'm here to trace the route plastic pollution has taken as it moves through the Rockies. As the sprawling mountains straddling Montana and Wyoming have shown, there are few places in this country it hasn't touched.

3. Millions of Metric Tons of Plastics Wind Up in the World's Oceans Every Year

Rebecca Renner wrote about efforts to clean up the swirling masses of trash dotting ocean surfaces around the globe earlier this year:

An island of garbage and seaweed stretched, it seemed to photographer Caroline Power, from horizon to horizon. She had seen trash islands before on her other photography trips out from Roatán, the Honduran island where she lives, but they typically occurred closer to Cayos Cochinos, about 15 miles away. Those mats of sargassum, styrofoam, and plastic ranged from five to 100 meters wide. The one currently converging around her boat extended almost five miles over the deep blue waters.

4. Reducing Individual Plastic Use Won't Solve the Problem

Last month, David M. Perry wrote about why plastic straw bans won't save our oceans, but they might make restaurants less accessible for some disabled people:

There's nothing wrong with pushing people to be more environmentally conscious. But individual action is not going to save our oceans. Our industrial systems continue to flood waste facilities with plastics, big and small. From there, plastics flow into rivers and streams and are carried into the sea. We need to look at the systems that generate these plastics, and hold producers financially responsible for safe disposal. Let's put our efforts where the money is, rather than shaming disabled consumers who just want an accessible drink of water.