Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution

Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution

by Michiel Roscam Abbing


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Plastics have transformed every aspect of our lives. Yet the very properties that make them attractive—they are cheap to make, light, and durable—spell disaster when trash makes its way into the environment. Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution is a beautifully-illustrated survey of the plastics clogging our seas, their impacts on wildlife and people around the world, and inspirational initiatives designed to tackle the problem. 

In Plastic Soup, Michiel Roscam Abbing of the Plastic Soup Foundation reveals the scope of the issue: plastic trash now lurks on every corner of the planet. With striking photography and graphics, Plastic Soup brings this challenge to brilliant life for readers. Yet it also sends a message of hope; although the scale of the problem is massive, so is the dedication of activists working to check it. Plastic Soup highlights a diverse array of projects to curb plastic waste and raise awareness, from plastic-free grocery stores to innovative laws and art installations. 

According to some estimates, if we continue on our current path, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050. Created to inform and inspire readers, Plastic Soup is a critical tool in the fight to reverse this trend.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781642830088
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 04/04/2019
Pages: 136
Sales rank: 154,737
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michiel Roscam Abbing is a political scientist who has been active in the battle against plastic soup since 2011 with the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF), one of the leading international groups fighting plastic pollution. He reports on scientific research and current developments online at and lectures about plastic soup in the Netherlands and around the world.

Read an Excerpt




The photographer Gregg Segal portrayed a number of Americans lying among newspapers, cans, and lots of plastic, which represented the amount of waste that these people had produced in a single week. His series from 2014 is confrontational; every one of us could have been lying there with just as much rubbish. Over recent decades, nothing has changed more than the composition and quantity of our waste. And there's a reason: plastic.

Plastics started their irresistible rise a century ago. Plastic waste is a mirror that reflects the throw-away society that quickly emerged after the Second World War. Increasing numbers of more traditional products were replaced by plastics. Polyethylene, lighter and tougher than traditional glass or earthenware, was introduced into the home and became familiar as 'polythene'. Zinc tubs and basins gave way to lightweight plastic ones in modern shapes and cheerful colors. Nylon stockings and plastic toys became immensely popular. Plastic bags were invented at the end of the 1960s.

We surrounded ourselves with plastic plates, tumblers, cutlery, bottles, and margarine tubs. Never in our history had so many products been available so cheaply. Plastic is the miracle material for mass production. Thanks to low prices, it no longer matters if a plastic product is used only once or if it soon breaks.

The properties of plastics made them absolutely revolutionary — lightweight and easily molded, strong and waterproof. Because plastics hardly react at all with other substances, the applications are endless. Food packed in plastic can be kept for much longer, and goods wrapped in plastic stay well protected during transport. Not only are increasing numbers of products made of plastic, but they are also packaged in it, sometimes in several layers. In the United States, 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away every hour. The average American produces the better part of 85 kilograms of plastic waste each year. On average, a plastic bag is used for just twelve minutes.

The use of plastic will increase sharply in the United States, due in part to the use of cheap shale gas as raw material instead of oil. That gas contains a large amount of ethane, which is converted at cracking plants into ethylene, the raw material for polyethylene. The American chemical industry is investing billions of dollars in these new cracking plants, making the production of plastic even cheaper. The plastics industry is continuously on the lookout for new technologies, and more and more are becoming possible.


At first glance, plastics seemingly have environmental benefits when compared with other materials. The production of one kilogram of plastic results in lower greenhouse gas emissions and less water and energy consumption than one kilogram of paper. It also takes more energy to transport paper since paper is a heavier material. But does that mean that a plastic bag is better for the environment than a paper one? Different materials vary in their environmental effects. The comparisons must carefully weigh all the environmental factors in all stages of the lifecycle of a material. Only then is it possible to determine which material is, on balance, less harmful.

Consumption of energy and water is simple to measure, but the impact of plastic waste on the environment is difficult to quantify. When plastics are said to be environmentally friendly, one factor — plastic soup — is consistently left out of the equation. While paper breaks down naturally, plastic in the environment does not decay, and that has lasting consequences.

Supermarkets are full of individually packaged fruits and vegetables. There's a reason for that: plastic wrap stops them from drying out. The plastic wrap allows products such as peppers, cucumbers, and carrots to be kept longer and be better protected during transport. Because of the longer shelf life, they can be transported greater distances, which is important when there is no local supply — for example, in winter.

Manufacturing plastic wrap takes energy, which adds to greenhouse gas emissions. However, if the shelf life of products was not extended by using plastic wrap, more food would be wasted. And in that case, more food would have to be grown — which takes more energy than does producing the packaging. The result is that more and more products are being individually wrapped in plastic throughout the world, including products that have their own natural rind or peel, such as bananas and oranges. Even organically grown fruits and vegetables often get their own separate packaging. The bulk of those wrappings then appear in consumers' trash cans.

The risk of plastic wrap ending up in the environment is not so high. However, it's about the quantities rather than the likelihood. Even if only a small percentage of the world's plastic packaging for fruits and vegetables ends up littering the environment, that still means hundreds of millions of fragments of plastic wrap and plastic sheeting in our midst. More and more supermarkets have decided to cut back on this packaging, and there are already some who have stopped using it altogether.


The word plastic means malleable, able to be molded. That is a property of this synthetic material when heated, so that it can be pressed into a shape that it retains upon cooling. In the cooled state, the material is sturdy, watertight, non-wearing, unbreakable, and insulating. This means that plastics are ideal replacements for traditional materials. What used to be made of metal, paper, ceramic, cotton, bone, leather, or wood is now more than likely made of plastic. In just a few decades, plastics have displaced many other materials.

There are two classes of plastics, thermoset and thermoplastic, and one of those groups has an additional property: it can be recycled. Thermoset plastics become hard after they have been heated and then remain hard — electrical sockets, sail boats, surfboards, or aircraft, for instance. These products cannot be melted again. Bakelite, one of the first plastics to be invented early in the twentieth century, is thermoset. Thermoplastics soften when they are heated and they can therefore be melted and reshaped time and time again. The applications are numerous and too many to mention, ranging from clothing, polystyrene, tubing, sheeting, and tumblers to bottles and window frames. Because they can be melted down, many of these items can be recycled.

Plastics are replacing traditional materials, but not people's desire for those materials. The original products are mimicked, and it is sometimes nearly impossible to see the difference. Is that a leather sofa, a wool sweater, a glass bottle? Is there grass on the field? Is the parquet floor real wood? Is that a live plant on the window sill? Or are they all made of plastic?

The process of substitution has never stopped. Zinc colanders were replaced fifty years ago by colorful plastic ones, and it will not be long before the steel used in cars and planes will be replaced by lightweight, tough composite materials. Nobody is surprised by such innovations anymore. The plastics industry is continually on the lookout for new applications for, and improvements to, its products, for example by adding chemicals during the production process or by tweaking the molecular structure of the polymers. The costs of development are high, and new types of plastic are continually being patented.

There are thousands of different trademarked names for patented plastics, and each type is slightly different. The development of new plastics is geared toward obtaining desired properties and does not take into consideration whether the material will remain as useful when recycled. The flip side of more advanced plastics, which are in many ways better than the materials they are replacing, is that they may be less useful as recyclable raw material.


Never in our history have so many products been available so cheaply. Those products are overwhelmingly made of plastic. Consumers are awash with products that do not last long and that they often don't even really need. Plastic is a wunderkind, mass production's miracle material. Shops in lots of countries are full of dirt-cheap knickknacks. As a consumer, you feel more and more as if you'd be shooting yourself in the foot by not snapping up these bargains. We are living in a throw-away society that is ruled by predatory pricing.

The products are bought in bulk in countries where cheap labor means they can be manufactured in vast quantities. The bigger the order, the lower the unit price. Many chain stores are happy with just a small margin: they are not concerned with the profit per item alone, but in how it is magnified when they sell items at a high volume. If lots of those products go through the checkouts, there will always be a profit no matter how low the margin.

Everything that is made of plastic becomes waste at a certain point. The average useful lifespan of cheap products is short; plastic objects that last many years are outliers. Many of those cheap plastic products are, in fact, deliberately designed so that they will soon be thrown away. The manufacturers rely on this to allow them to sell high quantities.

According to United Nations Environment Programme, between 22 and 43 percent of all plastic used worldwide ends in landfills. That is a colossal waste of raw materials. Plastics blow or wash away easily, ultimately ending up in the seas. Garbage dumps are one of the major contributors to plastic soup. Consumers think they are benefiting from cheap items, but every purchase harms the environment.

Advanced systems are needed for recycling, just as they are for clean ways of generating electricity by incinerating plastic waste. Dumping is simpler and cheaper than recycling. Exporting plastic waste to countries where the environmental regulations are more lax can often seem attractive, even for countries where the infrastructure for recycling exists. Until recently, China imported a substantial proportion of plastic waste collected worldwide. They used it as raw material for new plastic products or for generating energy. Some of the plastic imported by China was also originally produced there. Chinese imports have been halted, which has moved the export of plastic waste to other countries.

Plastic circulates around the world, in vast quantities.


Worldwide production of plastic has increased sixfold since the 1980s. A key reason is that a lot of plastic is used only briefly. That applies, in particular, to packaging materials for consumer products. Plastic packaging represents about 40 percent of global plastic production. The trend is not to package fewer products in plastic, but actually more. On top of that, the units that are packaged are getting smaller and smaller. Single use, as it is generally known, contributes disproportionately to plastic soup.

You see them hanging in shops in poorer countries: long, colorful strips of pouches or sachets. They are used for packaging and selling tiny quantities of a product — laundry detergent or shampoo or noodles, for instance. Customers only buy one or two ofthose little bags at a time. It is an inventive solution because people are often too poor to afford larger quantities.

These mini-packages illustrate the relationship between single use and plastic soup. After use, the sachets are often discarded. Sewers and rivers easily carry them off toward the oceans. Because they are intended for small volumes, there are huge numbers of them. And their value for recycling is zero, unlike PET bottles that can still be fished out of the garbage to be traded. So a waste picker will not see this packaging as being worthwhile. The miniature packages consist of several different layers of plastic foil, making recycling the material technically complex. In addition, the areas in which these products are sold typically only rarely have a properly functioning refuse collection infrastructure.

In principle, plastic packaging material has a residual value after use as a raw material. According to one calculation, 95 percent of that value is lost to the global economy, however. That annual value is estimated at $80-$120 billion dollars. A mere 5 percent of the value of the plastic packaging material is reused in the sense that new products are made from it.

A key reason why plastic packaging is rarely reused for new products is that the costs of collecting and sorting it are high. In addition, it is often cheaper for the plastics industry to make new plastic from oil, and the new material is better quality. When world oil prices are low, virgin plastic is extremely cheap. While they wait for oil prices to rise again, recycling companies go bankrupt or have to be kept going with government subsidies. In short, it is no surprise that packaging material ends up on the streets, is incinerated, or is dumped somewhere.


Plastic does not belong in the environment. Everyone can agree on that. Nevertheless, many products are designed to end up as waste. The environmental argument rarely seems to be a deciding factor for manufacturers. For them, it is primarily about cost reduction, profits for shareholders, and going as far as the regulations allow. Manufacturers also like shifting responsibility to consumers, who are expected to conduct themselves appropriately and leave nothing behind in the environment. Plastic is so cheap and so suitable for all kinds of applications that products will continue to be made — unless the regulations are clear — that will further contribute directly to the plastic soup problem.

One of the types of waste most commonly found on coastlines consists of short plastic sticks. They were once cotton swabs. Many people take the simplest option and flush them down the toilet. The sticks aren't always caught by the grills during wastewater treatment, so they end up in the surface water and finally in the sea. In September 2016, a total count was taken during a major cleanup of beaches in Britain. An average of 24 of these sticks were found per hundred meters of beach. In that country, plastic cotton-swab sticks were the sixth most common type of waste found on the beaches.

Manufacturers do not make the sticks from biodegradable paper or cardboard because plastic ones are cheaper, and there is no law prohibiting it. The plastic cotton swab is an example of a product that manufacturers know will only be used once. So, there is a good chance it will end up in the environment.

One instance where consumers can hardly be deemed responsible for pollution is the microplastics in personal care products. There can be tens of thousands of these tiny beads in every bottle. The microbeads disappear with the waste-water down the drain and some of them end up in the sea. They are also added to some cleaning products and detergents.

Manufacturers only appear willing to modify existing products when pressure is exerted on them and there is a threat of damage to their public image. One way this was achieved was through a worldwide campaign called Beat the Microbead. Most multinational companies have now voluntarily replaced the abrasive plastic particles and consumers think that this problem has been resolved. There can, however, still be microplastics in personal care products.


Excerpted from "Plastic Soup"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Michiel Roscam Abbing.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PART 1. On the Map
Chapter 1. Plastic Fantastic
Chapter 2. Floating Plastic
Chapter 3. From Soup to Broth
Chapter 4. RIP: Rest in Plastic
Chapter 5. A Planet Full of Plastic

PART 2. Off the Map
Chapter 6. Art
Chapter 7. Between Belief and Hope
Chapter 8. Inspirational Initiatives
Chapter 9. No Time to Lose
Chapter 10. Turning the Tide

Photo Credits
About the Author

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