Q&A with the Author of 'Plastic Soup'

A new book, Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, published by Island Press, beautifully illustrates the scope of the plastic pollution crisis and the emerging solutions. Plastic Pollution Coalition spoke with author Michiel Roscam Abbing of the Plastic Soup Foundation to learn what inspired the book and what surprised him most during the process.

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The earth we cultivate is much more polluted by plastic than our waters.
— Michiel Roscam Abbing

A fish with microplastics. Photo by Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres, courtesy of  Plastic Soup.

A fish with microplastics. Photo by Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres, courtesy of Plastic Soup.

The human health dimension is much more serious than we realise. We eat, breathe and drink plastic particles including nanosized ones that can penetrate deep into our bodies.
— Michiel Roscam Abbing

Wherever  Plastic Soupermarke t is exhibited, the composition of the products is different, depending on what was found in the immediate vicinity. Photo by Tetsuro Miyazaki, courtesy of  Plastic Soup .

Wherever Plastic Soupermarket is exhibited, the composition of the products is different, depending on what was found in the immediate vicinity. Photo by Tetsuro Miyazaki, courtesy of Plastic Soup.

How long have you been a member of Plastic Pollution Coalition and how did you get connected to PPC?

The Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) was founded in early 2011 and I joined later that year as a researcher and writer. The PSF has been a member of Plastic Pollution Coalition since 2012. This must have been after Dianna Cohen visited us in Amsterdam. I remember that she gave me a metal straw. I still have it and show it sometimes while lecturing about plastic soup. 

How did you come up with the idea for Plastic Soup?

The history of the book is a long one. Maria Westerbos initiated the book, Plastic Soup, in 2009, written by Jesse Goosens. In 2014, a few years after she established the PSF, we thought about writing a new book on plastic pollution. One that would summarize the major themes in an attractive way for a large audience, while also emphasizing solutions. It took some time to write and in April 2018 the book The Plastic Soup Atlas of the World was launched in the Netherlands. Publisher Island Press (Washington, D.C.) took over and the world edition, Plastic Soup: an Atlas of Ocean Pollution, appeared last April.

What was your overall goal with Plastic Soup when you started writing it? Did you find your goal shifting throughout the course of writing it?

The implicit overall goal of the book is to present a complex social, economic, and environmental problem to a large audience in an accessible way. This broad approach aims to countervail the dominant narrative presented by industry and authorities that we can go on producing and using plastic if we just clean up and recycle better. The format of the book, the division between “On the Map” (causes and consequences) and “Off the Map” (how do we solve the plastic crisis), with ten chapters and sixty themes, made it relatively easy to keep up with these implicit goals. Working on the book only convinced me that this was the right way to go.   

What was something surprising you discovered as you researched and wrote Plastic Soup that you think would surprise most readers?

I would like to mention five topics: 

  1. The human health dimension is much more serious than we realise. We eat, breathe and drink plastic particles including nanosized ones that can penetrate deep into our bodies.

  2. Fracking for plastic, using cheap shale gas to produce virgin plastic, will drastically augment the use of plastic (especially single use plastics) in the coming years, while we need absolute reduction. 

  3. The earth we cultivate is much more polluted by plastic than our waters.

  4. There is no dedicated international treaty that deals with plastic pollution.

  5. The time dimension: within a lifetime plastic pollution has become one of the world’s most severe environmental issues. In what kind of world will our children spend their lives if this keeps going?  

You highlight a lot of great efforts to reduce plastic pollution--what are some of the most inspiring projects you found?

Among the most inspiring ones are individuals or communities that show that living without creating waste is possible. Inspiring are initiatives of re-fill systems or “bring your own” and plastic free shops. Natural branding makes it possible to print information on the skin of a fruit or vegetable, so you don’t need packaging anymore for information. 

How has your relationship with plastic changed since writing Plastic Soup?

Writing a book is a solitary activity. It was after the release of the book and giving presentations that I realized that many people struggle with plastic like I do. You are seduced all the time to profit from the easiness that plastic brings you when shopping and consuming, but you have a kind of bad feeling about this knowing about the consequences. The challenge is to use less plastic, step by step. I must admit that I still have a long way to go.

What is the key message you hope Plastic Soup readers will walk away with?

Plastic has always been perceived as a save product of convenience. It is not. Everybody can do their part to fight plastic pollution. 

Learn more and purchase your copy of Plastic Soup here.

Read an exclusive excerpt of Plastic Soup below.


EDUCATING

Education and information about plastic soup are indispensable if we want to counteract plastic litter. The relationship between behavior and plastic soup is not difficult to comprehend. Even young children understand that you must not throw plastic away because it can kill animals. Some pertinent questions need to be asked, though. What can you do if education doesn’t help and pollution continues to increase? There will always be some groups of people who simply won’t allow anyone to tell them what to do. Educating people is very important, but that alone will never be enough.

Since the 1950s, major multinationals such as Coca-Cola have invested in public information campaigns.

These companies have even set up and financed special organizations for the purpose. Keep America Beautiful has been around since 1953 and sister organizations in other countries have been added since. Only the consumer is ever held responsible for littering. The public, therefore, needs to be educated. Plastic soup shows that these campaigns have not been even vaguely effective.

Keep America Beautiful was formed in direct response to a new law in the state of Vermont designed to combat litter, which included a ban on non-refillable bottles. The bill lasted only four years due to intense lobbying from the beverage industry that presented litter as a people’s problem. To this very day, organizations such as Keep America Beautiful have the same aims: to educate the general public and—less visibly—to ensure that the production of disposable products, which is growing every year, is not restricted by inconveniences such as laws, deposits, and taxes.  

Information campaigns are also an attractive and cheap way for governments to influence behavior. The effect of information and education is generally overestimated, however. Growing environmental awareness is by no means always going to result in the desired, environmentally friendly behavior. In that context, it is important to make a distinction between people who are acting out of their own intrinsic motives and exhibiting the desired behavior pattern after being educated, and those who only act in the environmentally aware way because of external driving forces, for example the ‘reward’ of getting their deposit back.

Those who study behavior know that the actions of teenagers, in particular, are difficult to affect. Younger people are, after all, busy with things other than simply avoiding litter. What does seem to work well for this target group are extrinsic motivators such as financial stimuli. 

Education is extremely worthwhile, but it is much more important to combine it with other methods of combating pollution, such as financial compensation for handing in waste.

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Excerpted with permission from Plastic Soup by Michiel Abbing. Copyright © 2019. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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