Inside the Garbage of the World

Story at-a-glance

  • Inside the Garbage of the World explores how plastic trash has altered the composition of our oceans, and the impact this may eventually have on life
  • 4.7 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, where wave action turns them into a plastic soup that damages sea life and marine ecosystems
  • The plastic to plankton ratio in the North Pacific is increasing rapidly and exponentially. Tests in 1999 found a plastic to plankton ratio of six to one. By 2007, that ratio had jumped to 36 to one


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

While you may not directly feel the impact of garbage while going about your day to day life, it's quite literally choking the life out of our ecosystem, and the situation is getting worse with each passing day.

Eventually, we will all suffer the very real consequences as the world dies around us. As stated in the featured documentary, Inside the Garbage of the World, "we're going to create an environmental catastrophe that we may not be able to recover from."

Many take for granted that their garbage "magically disappears" once it's picked up by the garbage truck, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most garbage does not disappear. It's simply relocated to a landfill or a recycling center. Trash also makes its way down storm drains and into nearby waterways.

The Abomination That Is Plastic...

Our throwaway mentality has created a pollution problem that now threatens the future of humanity itself. Plastic trash is of particular concern, as bits and pieces of plastic are mistaken for food by birds and sea animals.

Debris in the ocean also blocks sunlight from which plankton and algae sustain themselves, and this has negative implications on up the food chain as it eventually becomes micronized and winds up in some of the seafood you eat.

Also, once in the waterways, plastic particles also act like sponges for waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, herbicides, PAHs, and other persistent organic pollutants.

This phenomenon makes plastics far from benign, and scientists have yet to determine the full extent of the dangers posed by their consumption, or the effects higher up the food chain—which is where you are.

Plastic pollution is an enormous problem, worldwide. According to the documentary, an estimated 4.7 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, where wave action turns them into a plastic soup that damages sea life and marine ecosystems.

Eighty percent of this plastic comes from land; the rest is litter from ships, boats, and industrial platforms.

Rivers and streams are equally affected by plastic trash. For example, as noted by Dan Glaser with the Surfrider Foundation, 30-75 percent of all pollution found in the Ventura River in California is plastic.

In Hawaii, there are remote beaches where you cannot even see the sand for all the plastic washed ashore. An estimated 17 tons of debris is collected on Kamilo Point and adjacent beaches each year.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind—Oceans Turning into Landfills

Plastics such as polycarbonate, polystyrene, and PETE sink to the bottom, where they smother and kill marine life on the ocean floor. Other plastics such as LDPE, HDPE, polypropylene and foamed plastics float.

Partially broken down plastic particulate also fills the water column between the ocean floor and the surface. The largest landfill in the world is in fact not located on land but in the Pacific Ocean, in the North Pacific Gyre. Ninety percent of the trash making up this "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" is plastic.

The North Pacific gyre contains two sub-gyres (Eastern and Western) where trash collects as a result of rotating currents. The Eastern Garbage Patch covers an area equal to half the size of the continental United States, and the Western Garbage Patch is somewhat smaller.

Contrary to the image publicized by the media, these are not solid floating "islands" of trash. The pollution is dispersed; not only on the surface, but also throughout the water column and across the ocean floor, but the rotating currents do gather and concentrate the trash into these great swaths of ocean covering thousands of miles.

As noted by Anna Cummins, co-founder of 5 Gyres Institute:1

"If it were an island of garbage, it would actually be a better thing, because we'd be able to really, truly communicate this issue to the public.

One of the difficulties with this plastic issue is that it's so hard to engage the public in feeling the urgency... People want to see an island of garbage, and when they see images of blue waters, they think that it's not really a big deal.

The reality... is that it's more like a plastic soup... It's this plastic soup of "confetti" that is very diffuse. The difficulty is that it covers so much ground..."

Plastic Particles Outnumber Plankton 36 to 1

According to one United Nations report,2 there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean. But larger pieces of plastic do not remain intact. It breaks up into increasingly smaller pieces, which make their way into the food chain.  

An estimated 300,000 animals die each year either from ingested plastic, or getting tangled in plastic. One young sperm whale that washed ashore dead in California was found to have 400 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

In Midway Island, where 20 tons of plastic wash ashore each year, deceased albatrosses have been found with lighters, bottle caps and other chunks of plastic in their bellies. Ditto for birds, turtles, dolphins, seals, fish, and more.

Disturbingly, the plastic to plankton ratio in the North Pacific is increasing rapidly and exponentially. Tests in 1999 found a plastic to plankton ratio of six to one. By 2007, that ratio had jumped to 36 to one! So it got six times worse in a matter of about eight years.

Now another eight years have gone by, so that ratio is undoubtedly even higher today, and will continue to rise until we change our ways... The question is how long will our oceans continue to sustain life at this pace?

Research3 shows that biodegradable plastics aren’t all they’re cracked up to be either. Biodegradable plastics are treated with additives that are supposed to help the plastic break down faster. But a recent study found that biodegradable plastics degraded no faster than untreated, non-biodegradable plastic, so this really isn’t a viable alternative either.

ALL of the World's Oceans Are Clogging Up with Plastic

There are a total of five subtropical gyres: the Indian, North and South Atlantic, and North and South Pacific. All of them trap and collect trash in their rotating currents, and as noted by Anna Cummins, whose 5 Gyres Institute has now collected water samples from all five gyres, mankind has altered the constitution of our oceans on a global scale.

All but two of the 500 water samples the Institute has gathered contained plastic. The two that did not were collected in an area off of Chile. Plastic chemicals are an added concern. The potential for catastrophic biological consequences for every species on the planet is growing with every discarded bottle and bag.

Plasticizing chemicals like BPA disrupt embryonic development in both animals and humans, and are linked to heart disease and cancer. As reported in this film, one seafood test done in Singapore revealed BPA in every single seafood sampled. This is a real concern—the fish are eating plastic and swimming in plastic chemicals, and we're at the top of the food chain eating them...

Phthalates—another plastic chemical—dysregulate gene expression and cause genital anomalies, especially in baby boys, that may pass down several generations. Prenatal phthalate exposure has also been linked to reduced IQ in children, and DEHP may lead to multiple organ damage.

By altering the composition of our oceans with plastic, we're ruining the building blocks of life, including carbon, oxygen, and food production. So, whether you look at environmental or biological effects, our careless use of plastics has created a rapidly encroaching nightmare.

We Can No Longer Afford the Price of Convenience

At the heart of the waste problem is a materialistic society that encourages buying more and more "stuff." Acquiring things you don't really need can take a massive toll on the environment, in more ways than you may realize. The Western penchant for single-use items is particularly destructive. If you have not seen it yet, I highly recommend you watch The Story of Stuff, as it does a phenomenal job of illustrating the real effects of over-consumption and over-production.

All of this "stuff" -- the electronics, the toys, the single-use conveniences, the clothes and all the other material goods that we use to express our status and "personal value" -- carry a hefty price tag, not just for your wallet but also for the planet and the people who live on it. The Story of Stuff details what goes into the making of all these products; the processes of extraction (trashing the planet), production (adding in toxic chemicals), distribution, consumption, and ultimately disposal. The impact all of this has on communities at home and abroad are hidden from your view, yet it is immense.

Adding to the problem is planned obsolescence, on a functional, design, and even aesthetic level, which makes perfectly good products obsolete or just plain "undesirable." It is because of built-in obsolescence that you've probably traded in your perfectly good computer or smartphone just to get a newer model. It's also the reason why certain products break after a number of uses and have to be repeatedly replaced.

How to Cut Down on Your Waste

Bottled water is perhaps one of the most environmentally unfriendly industries there is. Americans alone go through and ultimately discard about half a billion bottles of water every week. The environmental ramifications of this practice are enormous, so becoming more responsible about what we buy and how we discard our waste is not just a "nice idea." I believe it is an absolute necessity.

Recycling responsibly is one step in the right direction, but I believe it's even more important to reduce and reuse what we have first, as much as possible. It's worth remembering that mankind had a zero waste lifestyle up until about 100 years ago. There were no plastic wraps around the foods and items you bought, and virtually every scrap, be it fabric, paper, wood, or metal, was repeatedly reused; creatively refashioned into new products.

We need to rethink our throwaway culture and become more sustainably creative. Ideally, seek to purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. Another important point is to choose reusable over single-use, which is possible in most instances. Here are a few ideas:

Use reusable shopping bags for groceries Take your own leftovers container to restaurants
Bring your own mug for coffee, and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning
Store foods in glass containers or mason jars rather than plastic containers and plastic freezer bags Avoid disposable utensils and buy foods in bulk when you can
Opt for non-disposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, rags in lieu of paper towels, and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags

Where Will Your Descendants Live, if Not on Earth?

These are just a few ideas — I'm sure you can think of many more. Please do take care to recycle and repurpose products whenever possible, especially ones that are not available in anything other than plastic. This includes giving your clothes or gently used household items to charities, and frequenting second-hand stores instead of buying new. Make use of online sites like that allow you to give products you no longer need away to others instead of throwing them away.

In general, purchasing locally sourced and locally crafted goods will be best for the environment and your local economy. You may need to pay more for such items, but chances are they'll far outlast mass-produced versions, which means you won't need to throw it away and acquire a new one. For items you cannot get made locally, seek out responsible companies that do not exploit people or the environment to make your purchases from.

Last but not least, consider asking yourself more often: "Do I really need this?" Overconsumption in general is an issue for most people in Western societies; the problem is, all this buying and throwing items away is like borrowing life from our children that we can never pay back. Once the Earth is too clogged with plastic to sustain life, where will our children and grandchildren live?


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