We Made Plastic. We Depend on It. Now We’re Drowning in It.

The miracle material has made modern life possible. But more than 40 percent of it is used just once, and it’s choking our waterways.

Just after dawn in Kalyan, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, trash pickers looking for plastics begin their daily rounds at the dump, joined by a flock of birds. In the distance, garbage trucks rolling in from the megacity traverse a garbage valley. The woman carrying the red cloth lives at the landfill.

If plastic had been invented when the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England, to North America—and the Mayflower had been stocked with bottled water and plastic-wrapped snacks—their plastic trash would likely still be around, four centuries later.

If the Pilgrims had been like many people today and simply tossed their empty bottles and wrappers over the side, Atlantic waves and sunlight would have worn all that plastic into tiny bits. And those bits might still be floating around the world’s oceans today, sponging up toxins to add to the ones already in them, waiting to be eaten by some hapless fish or oyster, and ultimately perhaps by one of us.

We should give thanks that the Pilgrims didn’t have plastic, I thought recently as I rode a train to Plymouth along England’s south coast. I was on my way to see a man who would help me make sense of the whole mess we’ve made with plastic, especially in the ocean.

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