Book Review: Coming to Grips With the Plastic Crisis

By Anja Krieger, who writes and creates podcasts about plastic pollution and biodiversity. A graduate of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and a decade-long reporter and audio producer for German national public radio, she now works as a science editor for the Helmholtz Climate Initiative in Berlin, Germany. Originally published at Undark.

The mahi-mahi the crew hauled in looked spectacular, its bright, shining body of yellow and green, dotted with radiant blue speckles and topped with a long dorsal fin from head to tail. Its fate was the ship’s oven, where the fish — common in Hawaiian waters — would be grilled to feed a hungry team of sailors.

In the mahi-mahi’s stomach, the sailors found a flying fish, which in turn had eaten small spheres that looked like fish eggs. Squeezing them out of its body, the crew discovered this was stuff of a much more synthetic nature: plastic. Not exactly a tasty addition to the menu.

In her first book, “Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis,” environmental journalist Erica Cirino uses this anecdote to reveal just how deeply plastic has worked its way into the food chain. She tracks the story of plastic pollution — from the creation of synthetic polymers in the 19th century and the discovery of their polluting side effects in the 1970s, to today’s plastic crisis, covering the entire life cycle of the material, from extraction and production to use and disposal.

It’s still a matter of ongoing research how much plastics end up in our waterways, but estimates show that it’s in the range of millions of tons per year. It’s not only fish that bear the burden of our trash, we now know. More than 900 marine species ingest ocean plastic or get entangled with it, including whales, seals, turtles, and fish. Research shows that even small creatures like corals, plankton, and microbes interact with the remnants of our throwaway society. Some calculate that 90 percent of seabirds swallow plastic at some point during their lifetime. And that’s just the oceans. The ecosystems of rivers, lakes, the air, and the soil are polluted with visible trash as well as microplastics — and possibly even nanoplastics, which are in the same size-range as viruses.

In the course of her investigation, Cirino presents a wealth of facts and figures, knowns and unknowns, and takes a critical, comprehensive look at possible solutions, from clean-up and bioplastics to recycling and politics. She gives a detailed account of how science tries to understand the issue. But she also situates the plastic problem in a larger context, demonstrating the environmental injustices that plastics inflict on communities and countries that are in the vicinity of production plants, or receive the pollution and the cheap trash richer countries want to get rid of — injustices with a long history.

Cirino begins her five-year journey in Los Angeles, boarding a sailboat bound for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the infamous area between Hawaii and California where bits of plastics and other trash accumulate in what some have called a “plastic soup.” As the small crew of sailors and scientists sample the water for plastics, Cirino documents their research. In this nearly windless area, miles away from shore, the sailors encounter daily fleets of trashed plastic products, and when they skim the water with their manta trawl — also used to sample for plankton — they find small pieces of plastic in it.

After losing both the ship’s engine and rudder, the crew manages to arrive in Hawaii, joining environmentalists on the infamous trash-laden Kamilo Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Later in the book, Cirino sails through Icelandic waters, home to huge whales and tiny plankton; investigates the microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes; watches researchers meticulously clean and analyze plastic bits in their labs; visits the communities and activists living near plastic production plants in Louisiana’s notorious “Cancer Alley”; and goes to Thailand, a global dumping ground for the cheapest, dirtiest plastics. She also explores the health implications of plastics and their additives in the human body.

At the same time, Cirino offers an engaging peek into the emerging field of plastic pollution research — a field that kickstarted in the early 1970s with a handful of studies, then stalled — and from the mid-1980s became subsumed under the umbrella term “marine debris.” It wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that the issue gained widespread public attention, when the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered and scientists found beaches with grains of microplastics ground up in the sea and washed back on the shore.

In the past 20 years, the number of research projects and studies has vastly risen, along with the rise in plastic production. The research field is still in the process of establishing standard procedures and definitions. Sailors, scientists, activists, and concerned citizens and innovators with high-flying ideas have all contributed to the current body of knowledge — which is still full of open questions, among them: Exactly how harmful and disruptive are plastics?

Plastic, Cirino maintains, is just a very visible symptom of a wider systemic problem: the emergence of a society that’s lost touch with what’s around it and forgotten what it can’t live without. Biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, and many other accelerating factors of global change, she demonstrates, are combining to exert immense pressure on species, ecosystems, and in the end, us.

As in the award-winning 2020 documentary “The Story of Plastic,” Cirino traces the human implications of the plastic crisis: a system of environmental racism and global injustice that puts the burden of pollution on underserved communities and people living in poverty and places with loose regulations and controls. The consequences of environmental crises like plastic pollution might hit everyone at one point eventually, but they aren’t distributed equally. Instead, she reveals, they are an integral part of an unjust system.

The history of plastics contains two interesting, parallel stories. One is that plastics were part of a phase of human progress — one that’s still active — that strove to defeat and dominate nature. “Plastic, the poster-child material of industrialization, was created to defy nature, to game the ephemerality of life,” Cirino notes.

The other story is that plastics also helped to save animal lives — just like fossil fuels did. Before coal and oil were used to light lamps and houses, oil from whale blubber did the job. Before billiard balls and combs were made out of plastic, elephants had to give their tusks and turtles their shells for humans to make them. Plastics have also played a crucial role in medicine, helping save human lives. But the age of fossil fuels, which included plastics, came with consumerism, a throw-away lifestyle and huge long-term downsides, including climate change, pollution, and much more. And it amplified the injustices established by colonialism and racism.

Cirino’s timely book draws all these threads together in an engaging fashion, whether she’s reporting at sea or in labs or from the frontlines of the people affected — the so-called “fenceline communities” living near petrochemical plants. Her writing is often strikingly evocative, as when, during an early-morning shift on board of her Pacific cruise, she notes the spectacle of colors in the dawn sky and the rhythmic sound of boat. “The smooth phsssssh-phssssh-phssssh of the steel hull cutting through gentle waves; the repetitive pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa of the sails flapping every time the wind died down or changed direction; the rattling clink-clink-clink-clink-clink of the mainsail shackles on the tall aluminum mast.” But then her revery is interrupted by a shipmate pointing out a sun-bleached plastic fish crate floating by.

It’s immersive moments like these that make “Thicker Than Water” so distinctive beyond the litany of grim statistics and accounts of plastic pollution and its impacts across the globe. Cirino reveals a mindset in which listening, close observation, collaboration, and empathy coexist with the hard truths of her reporting.

Nowhere does this become as clear as when the mahi-mahi, the majestic fish the crew catches on the boat, is slaughtered. Cirino, a trained wildlife rehabilitator, doesn’t look away. Instead, she documents this moment of cruelty, and shares her pain for the loss of a living creature. “Out there,” she writes, “I learned, life is beautiful and wild and painful, and in its pure rawness, the sea has the potential to reveal the truth. The sea can show us what it is in life we need, and what we can live without.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Rod

    Plastic, Cirino maintains, is just a very visible symptom of a wider systemic problem: the emergence of a society that’s lost touch with what’s around it and forgotten what it can’t live without.

    I think this is plainly a statement about Cultural Shift, and the article elaborates on issues resulting from it.
    I think it reinforces the criticle idea brought to us in this recent post:

    I think it goes back to getting more work done with less(purpose/benefits aside).

    Plastics–Like many things humans engage in–it was not clear where it would go, what it would entail, and how it would wind up.

    Living on Earth Radio, in 2021, has had multiple interviews regarding some of the unintended consequences of Plastic that are coming to fruition now. Like:
    Medical Plastic Linked to Breast Cancer Relapse

    imo–if Culture shifted to get us here now, then Culture must shift to get us away from here, now.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Culture-in-general won’t shift until enough early self-shifter individuals shift those parts of their own visible behavior, approach, etc. within their own conscious control and understanding that they can shift.

      Enough such lived-out changes of behavior may begin to influence onlookers and such. If enough early shifters join such a shifting culture-bunch, they may be able to start the background culture shifting towards the shift they have already made on purpose.

      If the culture-shifters become numerous enough, they may be able to conquer the political system and use it to force conservation infrastructure re-engineering upon the wider society in order to deprive the old-culture antishifters of any ability to live out their refusal to shift.

  2. The Rev Kev

    ‘But the age of fossil fuels, which included plastics, came with consumerism, a throw-away lifestyle and huge long-term downsides, including climate change, pollution, and much more.’

    Makes you wonder what would have happened if we had never developed a throw-away lifestyle but had kept the attitudes to material things like we practiced a century ago. You wonder how big a problem plastics would have been in our present lives in that time-line by just having plastics replace that which was necessary.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I believe plastics are a wonderful material that should never have been wasted the way they have been wasted. As you comment, there is waste through our throw-away culture and there is also an affiliated waste through misuse — using plastics for applications for which they are an inappropriate material. How much of our stuff breaks because some piece of plastic broke because plastic was used where metal, glass, ceramic, or wood should have been?

  3. Mikeyjoe

    There is such a variety of plastic in the environment; acrylic, nylon, polypropylene, polyethylene, polycarbonate, etc. There are also byproducts in the plastics BPA and BPS for example.

  4. Jeremy Grimm

    I wonder how much of the plastic in the oceans may be there as a consequence of ‘recycling’ efforts — where ‘recycling’ meant shipping it somewhere else out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Some of the plastic may have slipped off the boat, or it might have become lost down a river at the destination, and found its way to the sea.

  5. wilroncanada

    My major early encounter with plastics in my working life in retail was plastics as an employee elimination device, the capitalist’s dream.. Don’t hire staff to “sell” individual products, using the clerk’ s acquired knowledge to promote or demonstrate the product, or to solve the customer problem by showing a product the customer wasn’t familiar with. Put it on a blister card, preferably in multiples to add throwaway sales and hang it on a pegboard. Voila! clerk gone. Much easier to skeleton staff the business with a few cashiers who know next to nothing about the products except for where they are hanging.
    And now, eliminate most of the cashiers too, by using self-checkout. The loss through theft is much less than the profit from eliminating employees.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I always still go through the live-checker check-out line. If the store has decided to de-staff and close all the live-checker lines for the day, I leave my stuff behind rather than use the robo-checker.

      Any store that goes all-robo makes my list of don’t-go-there places.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          If you and I are the only two people doing it, it effects nothing. If millions of people are doing it, it effects something. It can delay, or even deny, the full robotization of checkering in stores.

          And people who make a point of choosing the checker line over the robo-line, even when the robo-line is shorter, can form the nucleus of a visible culture of supporting employment and opposing jobicide. And if such a culture-load of people becomes self-recognizing and self-affirming enough, that culture-load of people might even grow a movement which could even support a political combat party.

  6. drumlin woodchuckles

    I was going to bring here a link to a photo of individual potatoes for sale, each one wrapped in a bunch of saran wrap. But I couldn’t find the link when I went back looking.

    Anyway, apparently this is a thing, at least often enough to have been photographed. I wonder what the reason for it would be. It might be in a place where the customer base is too poor to buy a whole bag of potatoes at a time. Or perhaps the merchant is some kind of petty little racketeer, selling potatoes one at a time.

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