Humanity’s Plastic Footprint (I)

By: Gail Kulisch

[As a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR), Gail Kulisch has applied her 28 years of experience in the US Coast Guard protecting the maritime environment from harmful materials that degrade the health of our waters. In Part I of this four-part series, Kulisch will introduce us to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its impact on marine food chains.]

In 1968, Garrett Hardin, a biology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, noted that not every problem has a technical solution “demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality” (Hardin 1968). Hardin made a distinction between technical problems and what he called “no technical solution problems” that demand substantive changes in human values and behavior. In addition, Hardin highlighted humanity’s tendency to discard the collective impact of negative individual actions repeated without regard for the greater good.

Hardin termed this human tendency “the tragedy of the commons.” Using the example of a herdsman who adds yet just one more animal to his grazing land, he described the social and natural systems implications of human behavior when conducted without regard for the collective consequences.

Hardin’s theory can be applied to the current state of our planet’s oceans. Earth’s oceans are just such a shared resource. While an individual who discards plastic into the environment, directly or indirectly, sees no harm, the collective impact is cumulative and detrimental to our oceans.

Our individual behavior as citizens, company employees, and community members matters. The tragedy of the commons applies whether we distance ourselves from the direct impacts of our actions or convey them through a series of opaque layers that shield us from seeing or experiencing our role in contributing to pollution. In a world where the many people do not live on the coast, it is important to raise awareness, and bring about collective behavioral change to prevent further discharges of trash and chemicals into our oceans.

Behavioral change is necessary for every part of the plastics to trash continuum; from the research chemist who develops yet another polymer derivative to the individual or entity that discards the object made from that polymer into our environment where natural and man-made forces push the plastic discards towards, and ultimately into, a waterway. Rivers, streams, flood control channels, estuaries, and vessels at sea carry the growing accumulation of discarded plastics into the oceans.

It all begins with an individual. It is the collective impact of each entity along the production to consumption to recycling pathway that merits understanding, assessment, and actions to prevent further waste discharges while removing what has already accumulated.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A circulating clockwise vortex of accumulating trash, the Pacific Gyre has many names yet few people have actually seen it. It exists as a result of our disregard for the consequences of our lives of convenience. Natural currents in the Pacific sweep trash that is discarded along shorelines, thrown overboard from vessels, and swept into the ocean from rivers and streams into their natural wind generated current.

In the Pacific Ocean above the equator, the North Equatorial current swirls clockwise while south of the equator, the South Equatorial current swirls counter-clockwise. Each gyre gathers an increasing volume of trash into its center. The lighter elements of the trash remain suspended while heavier objects and containers and objects which fill with water fall below the surface.

Inorganic plastic objects are one of the most enduring and harmful components of this trash. The array of discarded plastic material consists mainly of items originally engineered and produced to withstand the stresses of heat, cold, transportation, and storage. It exists in many shapes and sizes from microbeads and thin film to industrial sized objects, barriers, and building materials.

While the objects may split apart from strong external forces and become smaller in size depending upon exposure conditions, biodegradation rates are significantly slower than for organic material and rates of degradation vary considerably (Andrady 2015). Plastic particles and materials have been found in all of the world’s oceans with the exception of the Arctic and Antarctic. They have also been found in the Mediterranean Sea (Cozar, et al. 2015).

Preserving a healthy aquatic food chain in particular requires focused global attention, enhanced prevention measures, and technologies and methods to remove what has accumulated. Humans are part of this food chain, consuming fish and aquatic species. Over the course of the last 50 years, an increasing volume of the world’s plastic waste has been ingested by humans through the food chain (Zalasiewicz, et al. 2016). Equally important, these inorganic compounds must be prevented from entering our waterways and degrading aquatic life.

Scientists, governments, civil society organizations, and business entities are increasingly aware of the negative consequences of persistent plastic and the increasing volumes of plastic trash accumulating on land, in storage and disposal facilities, in our waters and waterways, and throughout the environment (Hessami 2016).

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program reports that an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic trash enters the ocean every year and three of most common items found along the coasts during the International Coastal Cleanup are plastic cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bottle caps, and plastic straws and drink stirrers (U.S. Dept of Commerce 2016). With increasing visibility on the value of sustainability, and increasing support of shareholders, consumers, advocacy groups, and regulators, the opportunity exists to directly address the accumulation of discarded plastic while increasing the quality of life for those still struggling to enter the middle class.

Visibility on the human and environmental consequences of plastics in our oceans is increasingly necessary to change corporate and individual behavior, create alternative materials and practices, eliminate plastic contamination of waterways, and incentivize the removal of existing plastics in waterways. Technologies, methods, and means to remove what has already accumulated must be aggressively supported and implemented.

[In Part II of this four-part series, available on April 30th, Kulisch discusses unique properties of the plastics that make them a persistent waste problem.]


Gail Kulisch is an alumni of the Executive Master of Natural Resources program at Virginia Tech and the Owner and Managing Principal of BTG Ventures LLC, which supports development and implementation of safety and security initiatives, provides leadership and technical expertise to disaster response operations, and advances environmental stewardship.  A retired Coast Guard Officer, Kulisch served 28 years on Active Duty, including assignments in marine environmental protection, response, and remediation before retiring from military service and forming her own consulting organization.  She is a 1983 graduate of Holy Cross College (B.A. in Chemistry) and earned a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from UCLA in 1990.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Paolo Margari; US Embassy in the PhilippinesMPCA Photos; and juggadery.


  • Andrady, AL. 2015. Plastics and Environmental Sustainability (First edition). John Wiley & Sons
  • Cozar, A, M Sanz-Martín, E Martí, JI González-Gordillo, Bárbara Ubeda, JÁ Gálvez, X Irigoien, and CM Duarte. 2015. Plastic accumulation in the Mediterranean Sea. PLOS one 10(4):e0121762.
  • Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162(3859):1243-1248.
  • Hessami, EB. 2016. Marine litter: A whale of a problem and international strategies to address it. International Environmental and Resources Law Committee Newsletter 19:11-13.
  • U.S. Dept of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2016. Trash Talk: Why is Plastic Marine Debris So Common? <>, accessed November 21, 2016.
  • Zalasiewicz, J, CN Waters, JA Ivar do Sul, PL Corcoran, AD Barnosky, A Cearreta, and Y Yonan. 2016. The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 13:4-17.