I want to say one word to you. Just one word: plastics.

Mike Nichols, The Graduate, 1967

In 1967 it had been little more than a decade since plastics had begun their unstoppable conquest of the world: cheap, resistant, apparently endless, it made once-expensive consumer goods affordable for all classes of society.

The numbers

We’ve witnessed a constantly increasing production of plastic since its invention, from 2 million tons produced in 1950 to 400 million tons in 2015. Overall, more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced so far, equivalent to 158,670 Titanic ocean liners—and three quarters of this plastic has already ended up in landfill.

Plastic is everywhere. A large part ends up in the sea, where it breaks down into minuscule fragments—nanoplastics and microplastics—while larger pieces are visible to the naked eye: so called macroplastics and megaplastics. Twenty per cent of the plastic in the sea comes from our marine activities: nylon nets, abandoned fishing equipment, buoys, boxes and barrels, while, speaking of interconnections, the other 80% comes from the land, especially from places where waste management is inadequate or nonexistent.

The consequences

The plastic in the sea is pollution. It forms gigantic drifting islands which float across the ocean or wash up on the coast, allowing invasive species to move into new territories, damaging ecosystems and communities. Nanoplastics and microplastics are swallowed by fish, contaminating them and those that eat them. The more plastic there is in the sea, the more we consume when we eat fish.

What can we do?

If there’s one area where we can take direct action every day, it’s this one. It’s important to start from from the assumption that just recycling isn’t enough: we have to reduce our use of plastics as much as possible.

  • As citizens, we can change our shopping habits, in particular by paying more attention to packaging. What is the point in buying a ready-peeled orange, divided into segments on a plastic tray with a double layer of shrink wrap? Try to avoid plastic packaging wherever possible, and recycle as much as possible.
  • Fishers should choose equipment made with natural fibers rather than synthetic materials, and make every effort to recover the visible plastic waste they find at sea—lost nets, for example—to prevent it killing and polluting.
  • Companies must develop new materials and alternative solutions to plastic, above all for single-use plastics. Objects made with natural polymers such as lignin, cellulose, pectin and chitin biodegrade much faster than their synthetic counterparts. New functions must be found for all our old plastic too: did you know you can make a soft quilt from 20 plastic bottles?

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

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