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. Power, who had seen trash islands once or twice a year, felt devastated: This view should have been untouched by humans. Instead it was blanketed by plastic bags, bottles, forks, and spoons. Disgusted, she started filming.
The footage Power shot that day went viral, bringing Roatán, one of Honduras' picturesque Caribbean Bay Islands, into the public consciousness, perhaps to the detriment of the island's reputation. "Our beaches are not filled with plastic," says Power, quick to defend her home. "Most of the people that live and vacation [in Roatán] do not see trash, so they actually find it hard to believe the photos. People that spend their lives near the water do not realize the extent of the global trash crisis."
At the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, Florida, researchers and volunteers are working at the front lines of the same global trash crisis. On an unseasonably hot Sunday afternoon in December, LMC volunteers finished sorting the trash from that weekend's beach clean-up into buckets. Of the 343 pounds of trash collected by volunteers, a staggering 2,225 pieces were styrofoam. Plastics, including bags, bottles, cups, and utensils, accounted for another 3,045 pieces of the collected trash.
After logging the numbers for the Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas database, the volunteers send LMC's hard plastics off to TerraCycle, where they will be melted down to be made into shampoo bottles for Proctor & Gamble. LMC also sends the monofilament fishing line they collect to Berkley Pure Fishing Company, which melts down the line to make other fishing gear, like tackle boxes.
Even with these small solutions, the sheer amount of trash collected by LMC alone seems daunting.
"Every year, an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic enters our ocean," says Tommy Cutt, LMC's chief conservation officer. "That number is expected to increase as global population numbers continue to rise." In 2015, the ICIS Supply and Demand database, a market forecasting tool, measured plastic production at 250 metric tons, and the database projects that number to increase to more than 380 million metric tons by 2025. Much of that will be single-use plastics like the soda bottles collected by LMC or the forks that floated next to Caroline Power's boat.
"The greatest pollution challenges [are] in areas without the adequate infrastructure to properly collect and dispose of trash and in regions with limited educational resources," Cutt says. According to data collected by the Ocean Conservancy, more than half of the plastic waste that has leaked into the ocean came from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Those countries are not isolated on the other side of the planet, at least as far as the ocean is concerned. Currents can wash a single piece of trash thousands of miles from its origin. The same plastics absorb persistent organic pollutants. The presence of plastics amplifies in the surrounding water up to a million times, rendering the fish that swim in such water possibly too toxic for safe human consumption.
Once in the ocean, hard plastic like that of a soda bottle could take up to 450 years to decompose. In a gyre like the trash island near Roatán or another more famous trash island, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California, a piece of plastic could churn for hundreds of years, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces that marine animals—like turtle hatchlings—then consume.
In the hospital room at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, a tiny black post-hatchling rested in a cooler after surgery. "We don't give names to the smaller ones," says Sam Clark, a veterinary technician at LMC. The tone of Clark's voice was somber, as if the real reason they don't name sea turtles is that they might get attached.
Injury to wildlife is one way the uptick in pollution has harmed delicate coastal ecosystems. When marine animals like sea turtles ingest plastic, it can damage their digestive systems and cause them to starve. Cutt says that they've seen a demonstrable difference in the marine trash they've been removing from turtles. Fifteen years ago, staff was examining patients to see if marine debris was present before they treated the animals. Now, Cutt says, "nearly 100 percent of all post-hatchlings necropsied by our hospital staff have been found to have plastic in their gut."
Rather than focusing on reactive measures, LMC emphasizes the preventative—what they call "source reduction." This includes several initiatives, from LMC's Balloon Ban, which targets balloon litter, to their Responsible Pier Initiative, a conservation program for pier-goers that promotes sea turtle awareness and responsible fishing practices.
Through the Ocean Conservancy's Clean Swell app, LMC has collaborated with other conservation organizations to share findings and collaborate in targeting efforts to best help the ocean. They also participate in the Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas Project, which has collected 228,919,809 pounds of trash since 1985.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and Honduras' trash islands aren't the only worrisome waste structures. Last summer, a garbage patch larger than Mexico was discovered off the waters of the South Pacific. More troubling was the fact that its confetti-like particles were spread out, making clean-up virtually impossible. Scientists estimate that 91 percent of plastic isn't being recycled.
Even so, Cutt believes the average person shouldn't be intimidated by those numbers. His solutions are simple—reduce single-use plastics, participate in local conservation efforts—almost exceedingly so. And yet, even those small grassroots steps can prevent the world's ecosystems from being irreparably damaged by plastic for generations to come.