Soup of the day

Michiel Roscam Abbing talks to Kathryn Manning about how plastic waste is affecting ecosystems, and how we can create positive change through laws and recycling

Your book is called Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution. What exactly is ‘plastic soup’?
‘Soup’ refers to the phenomenon in which plastics fragmentise into ever smaller pieces, which can never be cleaned up. Most people think plastic pollution is far away, in the middle of the ocean. The book illustrates not only that ‘plastic soup’ is a global problem – you will find it in even the most remote places on earth – but also that it manifests itself in different ways.

How much has worldwide production of plastic increased during the past 40 years?
A study by Roland Geyer, Jenna R Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law that appeared almost two years ago ( estimates that global production of plastic resins and fibres increased from 2m tonnes per year in 1950 to 380m tonnes per year in 2015, representing an annual growth rate of 8%. 

Is there any evidence to suggest some plastic use might be more environmentally-friendly than natural products in the whole lifecycle sense?
Not that I know of. It depends on the definition of ‘lifecycle’ you use. Paper packaging is heavier than plastic packaging and costs more energy to transport – but if you include the end-of-life phase in your analysis, plastic is much worse for the environment than paper because it lasts forever.  

Are we recycling correctly? Or are we making mistakes putting plastic back into the environment?
Recycling can be much improved if we return plastic through deposit systems and recycle the same type of plastic each time, instead of making new products from all different types of waste plastic. Products made of recycled plastic, such as toys, contain a relatively high toxic content because chemicals such as additives and flame retardants cannot be removed during the recycling process.

"Big oil is now investing in new plastic production facilities, based on the availability of cheap shale gas. Governments still tend to defend industry interests instead of fighting the negative consequences of climate change and plastic soup"

Do we need better labelling, for items with microplastics for example?
We certainly need better labelling. It would, for instance, be helpful, if synthetic clothing was labelled to inform the buyer that they are polluting the environment with plastic microfibres every time they machine wash or dry the garment. The government should make labelling mandatory until better solutions are introduced.

Do you think the the microbead ban in the UK is working – does the legislation have teeth?
The UK ban is only banning plastic scrub particles in personal care products. Many other microplastics are still allowed. The plastic pollution going down your drain has not been ended. The ban is also confusing. Why is glitter in scrubs covered by the legislation, when glitter in make-up or shampoo isn’t? The UK government should support the recent proposal by the European Chemical Agency to ban all intentionally added microplastics – not only in cosmetics, but also in detergents, paints, agricultural and industrial products. 

What are ‘nanoplastics’ and how are they harmful to organisms?
Nanoplastics are very small pieces of plastic, smaller than 0.0001 mm, that are hardly visible even when using the most sophisticated microscopes. Plastic in the environment fragmentises into ever smaller pieces. The consequence is that the amount of nanoplastics exponentially increases. These nanoplastics can spread through the bodies of animals and humans with as yet unknown consequences. Nobody knows whether these particles could cause chronic inflammation in the body and trigger a series of disorders, including cancer and Alzheimer’s.

In what way is plastic in the ocean changing marine ecosystems?
We do not know exactly, because marine ecosystems are very complex, with all kinds of interactions. But there are many red flags. For instance, recent research found that mussels are losing their grip because of microplastics, putting mussel beds in danger. Another study found that the chemical substances that attach to plastic in seawater, or that leach out of it, impair the defence mechanism of the common periwinkle. Swedish researchers found nanoplastics are causing behavioural abnormalities in fish, making them easy prey, which impacts the ecosystem’s current balance. It’s a disturbing insight that plastic makes coral reefs sick. We also know that pathogenic bacteria travel large distances on floating microplastics.

What evidence is there that plastic in our environment and seafood is damaging our own health?
At the moment there is no clear evidence that it is impacting our health, unless you live in an environment that is heavily polluted with plastic and where plastics are being burned in the open air. Millions of people are living in such circumstances. Microplastics and nanoplastics in seafood are considered a potential future food safety issue. Two phenomena are evident: the concentration of microplastics in the environment (and the air) will only increase in the years to come. We also know that microplastics, especially nanoplastics, can penetrate deep into human bodies (they can enter organs, brains and the placenta). The dilemma is that by the time we can prove their harm to human health, it will probably be too late to take measures. 

Are there some polluting factors that you think the general public is only vaguely aware of and should be publicised more? 
Yes, indeed. I’m thinking about the impact of microplastics in soil and its long-term effects on terrestrial ecosystems. Another is that we breathe microplastics continuously without knowing the consequences. Babies crawl on synthetic carpets and breathe household dust that contains microplastics.  

What do you think could be the quick wins or low-hanging fruit for reducing our plastic use and waste?
By far the most important quick win would be a complete ban on single-use packaging. Some countries, such as India, are seriously considering this. Another is to phase out all plastics that cannot easily be recycled. Also to make sure that deposit schemes are put in place to guarantee that used plastic is handed in again. And introduce a packaging or plastic tax to make the use of (primary) plastic more expensive.  

Which campaigns have been successful in reducing plastic waste?
So far, there have been no successful campaigns. The problem is that campaigns focus on the behavioural change of people while allowing for the continuing production of plastic. It is an illusion that this can solve the problem. Even if a tiny percentage of the everyday abundance of plastic leaks into the environment, it would still represent a huge amount. And plastic in the environment never degrades in a natural way.

Do you think a global joint effort on ocean pollution targeting the world’s most polluting coastal communities would help?
Governments should attack plastic pollution at its source. A new global convention should be drafted to prevent both growth in plastics pollution and harm to human health, at all phases of the production cycle. In fact, a new global convention is the only way to deal with plastic soup. Big oil is now investing in new plastic production facilities, based on the availability of cheap shale gas. Governments still tend to defend industry interests instead of fighting the negative consequences of climate change and plastic soup. Targeting the coastal communities doesn’t help if the world is not able to turn off the plastic tap at the same time. 

Your book is dedicated to ‘children everywhere’. How can we help the next generation counter the huge environmental issues they will face?
Plastic soup is not the only environmental problem the next generation will have to deal with. The human species must learn not to consume at the expense of the environment. The best thing we can do for future generations is learn and act on that. 

Michiel Roscam Abbing is a political scientist and author of Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, published by Island Press. 
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