When it comes to waste management, there is no shortage of alarming facts. As we begin to reimagine our future as an eco-conscious civilization, we are faced with endless reminders about how the world will change if we don’t amend our ways. While it’s true humankind has made some real eco-advances in recent years, the lingering fear that our trash will likely outlive our species is always a concern.
Even more, the idea that our waste will soon endanger parts of our lives that we didn’t expect is becoming increasingly possible. A perfect example is our food supply—namely, fish. Most people love it—it’s delicious and healthy. But for how long? Given our current trajectory of plastic pollution and marine debris, the ocean’s fish may soon be in grave danger. And while many agree the ocean is one of our greatest concerns when it comes to waste management, it’s often hard to imagine how this reality will look—and feel and taste—when it threatens to enter our bodies.
Based on a study published in the journal Science in 2015, it’s getting easier to predict the future consequences of our heavy use of plastics—all you have to do is look at what’s happening to the ocean. As one of the greatest dumping sites for human debris, the ocean is a prime example of a natural resource that will soon be inextricably changed as a result of waste mismanagement.
According to the study, around 8.8 million metric tons of plastics pour into the ocean every year. That’s the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic waste for every foot of the world’s coastlines—a staggering amount. And unless our waste management practices are significantly amended in the near future, many fear the problem will have increased tenfold by 2025. Just 25 years later, in 2050, some scientists say there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish.
Besides mucking up habitats and killing fish and other marine life, these plastics may be finding their way back to us, via the fish we eat. A study published in Scientific Reports showed that much of the fish we currently eat may already contain plastic particles and other human-made debris.
So, how bad is the problem? The authors of this recent study formed a team of scientists from California and Indonesia who bought fish from local markets and analyzed the contents found in their guts. In both California and Indonesia, roughly one in four of the fish examined contained some amount of manmade debris in their digestive systems. This study is one of the first to show a direct link between our current waste problem and the food that we eat. It is also the first step in the larger process of taking plastics in our diet seriously and looking at how these changes may affect human health. Such findings are not only disappointing—they are one serious wake-up call to anyone who thinks our relationship with plastic will not eventually affect every aspect of our lives.
In Indonesia, 28 percent of the 76 fish examined—mostly mackerel and herring—contained plastic particles. In the US, the scientists examined 64 fish in the San Francisco Bay Area, and found that a quarter of them contained manmade debris. Most of this debris was textile fibers; only 20% of it was classified as plastic. Troublingly, these fish species were among the most popular for consumption: anchovy, striped bass, salmon, and other familiar types. The scientists also found a quarter of the Pacific oysters that they studied contained manmade debris as well, pointing to another truth—it’s not just fish that are suffering this contamination, but shellfish as well.
That said, the jury is out on how dangerous this really is. Of course, the mere idea of it is enough to have some people swearing off fish forever, but most scientists seem to think it’s not a lethal problem. They also know, however, that plastics often contain a medley of carcinogenic materials that in high-enough doses can contribute to hormonal disorders and other health problems. Once in the ocean, these plastics can also become a sponge for other contaminants, like industrial chemicals. So while the plastics and other debris these fish consume won’t kill us, they are certainly not good for our health.
The question of just how sick they can make us is still up for debate. Any time we digest any manmade debris inside a sardine or mussel, we are introducing an unnatural substance into our bodies. While the material may just go right through us, there is also the possibility of absorption into the body, which carries a host of unknown repercussions to our health. However, one thing is certain—our insufficient waste management systems are a big contributor to these problems. Realizing this fact is the first step toward a solution.