This story is part of a series on ocean plastics.
Margaret Atwood, the author behind hit Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is well versed in the types of hot-button issues that polarize societies. In a new op-ed, the dystopian author says she’s also keen on tackling a devastating problem that much of the world is barely talking about: plastic waste.
Atwood writes in her piece, published in The Guardian on Saturday, that she considers plastics the “modern equivalent of a universal religion.”
“We worship them, whether we admit it or not,” she explains. “Their centre is whatever you happen to be doing, their circumference is everywhere; they’re as essential to our modern lives as the air we breathe, and they’re killing us. They must be stopped.”
In Atwood’s lifetime, the world went from barely using any plastic to being unable to live without it. Plastic is cheap, and can be found in pretty much everything we use ― from clothing to diapers to shopping bags. We just as readily discard these products without thinking twice, which leads to the dumping of billions of pounds of plastic waste in oceans. While the scope of the issue ― and its effect on living beings ― is difficult to calculate, environmentalists are gravely concerned.
If we don’t change our consumption habits, by 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish by weight, according to a report from the from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Animals are mistaking plastic for food, and are getting seriously injured – or dying – after becoming entangled in discarded trash.
Human health risks associated with plastics may be enormous. Scientists haven’t settled on exactly how these substances affect humans, but numerous studies suggest that chemicals in plastics may be linked to birth defects, diabetes, cancer and infertility.
Microfibers ― which shed from synthetic clothing ― make their way from washing machines, to natural bodies of water and into the tissues of marine life. How this will affect fish, and the people who consume them, is still unknown.
Microplastic particles are affecting marine algae, which is the “basic building block of oceanic life,” Atwood adds. Marine algae are responsible for making about 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe. Destroying them could mean killing ourselves.
Atwood outlines a three-point plan to address the issue, calling for reforms that advocacy groups and environmentalists have long promoted.
She wants organic and biodegradable replacements for plastic products. That’s a critical one, considering how long it takes for plastic items to decompose. A plastic bag, for example, often used for one shopping trip and then immediately thrown out, takes 10 to 20 years to decompose.
Atwood wants the industry to devise methods to collect plastics before they reach the oceans and filter plastics out of seawater. Such robust systems exist in developed nations like the U.S., but not as much in developing nations.
Finally, plastic products need to be broken down into their basic parts. This is crucial, especially considering how much plastic packaging can’t be recycled. They’re often made from multiple layers of materials, and the recyclable components can’t be separated out.
A number of activists and environmental groups are already working on some of the action items Atwood raised.
Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke, who made his fortune in offshore drilling, is donating most of his wealth to cleaning up the oceans. In 2020, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund Norway, he’ll be launching a massive yacht, which will collect 5 tons of plastic a day. The researchers on board will work to identify plastic alternatives and develop ways to keep plastics from entering the ocean.
These are the types of reforms that give Atwood hope.
“We may yet save ourselves from being plasticised to death,” she writes.