EARLY IN 2004, a buoy was released into the waters off Argentina. Half of the buoy was dark and the other light, like a planet in relief. The buoy sailed east, accompanied by the vastness of the ocean and all the life it contains, the long-lived great humpback whales with their complex songs that carry for miles, and the short-lived Argentine shortfin squid. Along the way, many thousands of minuscule creatures were colonizing this new surface, which had appeared like a life raft in the open waters of the South Atlantic.
The researchers who’d dropped the buoy followed its movement in hopes of learning more about ocean currents than generations of science and sailing history had revealed. They watched the buoy float into the wide-open ocean between South America and Africa, those twin coastlines that struck me, as I gazed at them on the pull-down map in first grade, as two puzzle pieces that once linked. They surveilled its movements by GPS. Eighteen months later, the signal ceased. Silence from the satellites.
The buoy continued along the currents of the South Atlantic, free from surveillance, sheltered and shocked by sun and clouds and storms overhead. It was likely molded out of a thermoplastic polymer called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS, which, like most plastics, was crafted from the extracted remains of long-ago life-forms. ABS was engineered in the lab to endure—rigid, resilient, capable of withstanding all that being let loose at sea may foist upon it.
All plastic begins in a factory. That much we know. But where it goes next remains poorly understood. Only 1 percent of the plastic released into the marine environment is accounted for, found on the surface and in the intestines of aquatic animals. The rest is a little harder to measure. Some presumably washes back ashore. An untold amount settles, sunk by the weight of its new passengers. (One study found four times more plastic fibers in the sediment of the deep-sea floor than on the surface of the ocean.)
And some, like the buoy, just keeps drifting along.
I have spent thirty years fixated on environmental issues, spawned during my own oceanic migration in the fall of 1989….