When people think about vacationing in exotic places, they think of bright beaches, sunny islands, and blue oceans. However, the reality isn’t that pristine. These once-scenic places lay covered in trash. Moreover, in 2017, a photographer on an island in Honduras discovered five miles of a sea of plastic covering the beaches and ocean.
Photographer Caroline Power traveled a little further than most tourists in the area. That’s how she found the unsettling sea of plastic and garbage. Power is an environmental advocate, and she uses her photography to display the unpleasant effects of people on nature. The masses of plastic bottles, cutlery, and plates are drifting for miles in the Caribbean speaks volumes about the people responsible for it.
A Sea of Plastic and Trash in the Caribbean
According to the Blue Planet Society, heavy rains must’ve brought the trash in from the Motagua River in Guatemala. They called the photos “watershed moment in terms of awareness,” echoing the unsettling feeling these pictures bring. It’s like nature is screaming for help.
“This is the first time that a picture has brought the attention of the plastic problem in the Caribbean Sea to the public,” John Hourston, founder of Blue Planet Society. “We’ve known about the Pacific gyres for quite a long time, but localized problems — I’ve never seen a photo that illustrates how bad the problem is in that area.”
Hourston explains that Guatemala doesn’t conduct a proper garbage collection system. So many villages ending up tossing their garbage on river banks. “When the rainy season comes, it just gets washed into the rivers and flows straight down to the Caribbean Sea,” he said. The Guatemalan government has received major flak from the Honduran government for allowing these. However, Power’s recent photos are prompting the governments to come together to solve this issue.
The Growing Problem
“Photos don’t exactly do it justice,” said Power. “It was one of the most devastating and disgusting things that you could imagine to see in the water. We must have gone through an area about five miles wide that had garbage strewn everywhere. On the surface, you could see plastic floating, and underneath the surface, there was plastic bag after plastic bag. It was just unbelievable.
“It was just everywhere, and then we reached an area where we thought we’d seen the worst, and then after that, there was just more trash. An area about two miles wide had these trash lines that were maybe up to 30 meters wide that just stretched from horizon to horizon. It almost looked like floating islands.” 
Plastic pollution is one of the major issues affecting the oceans. There are many frightening photos depicting this, from birds choking on strips of plastic to shopping bags throttling sea turtles. Many creatures have attempted to eat the debris to detrimental effects. These photos help bring what feels like a distant problem closer to home.
The Dangers of Plastic Pollution
About 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. Plastic attracts pollutants and toxins like pesticides and industrial chemicals, and these substances spread into the oceans. And when the sea creatures, from whales to plankton, consume this plastic, they absorb these toxins. Often, they die from poisoning, choking, or starving because the material cannot be digested. But if they survive, these toxins can appear in the seafood people eat.
“It enters the food chain at a microscopic level and then likely ends up in humans, and we can be fairly certain there will be some negative impacts,” Hourston said. He believes that the key to solving this issue is government legislation. Start from the top to get plastic out of the economy. He added that change must occur quickly.
“If we allow it to continue for the next 50 years, we will live next to a barren, polluted, heated, acidic hellscape and that means we’re going to go with it,” he said.
Cleaning the Oceans and Seas of Plastic
The top 30 polluters per capita include 10 from the Caribbean region. This is primely due to inadequate trash management systems. In Caribbean countries alone, about 322,745 tons of plastic aren’t properly collected. Moreover, 22% of this waste ends up in waterways. This region relies on the sea for about $400 billion of income every year, and the pollution in these waters poses a real threat to that as well.
According to National Geographic, “The Caribbean Sea’s $5 billion annual trade, it’s 200,000 direct jobs, its 100,000 ancillary services, food security for 40 million coastal inhabitants, and over $2 billion in dive tourism [are] at risk.”
Some places have begun banning single-use plastic and Styrofoam items. Other organizations and companies repurpose the plastic into ink cartridges, clothes, bags, and shoes. There are group missions to remove plastic waste from the ocean. However, the root problem of inadequate waste management still has to be addressed. 
A Cleaner Ocean in Five Years
Fortunately, there is hope. In 2019, 187 nations in the UN made a framework to better regulate the global plastic trade. This amendment to the 1989 Basel Convention went into effect on January 1, 2021. The goal is to see a cleaner ocean in five years. The amendment includes a ban on sending unsorted, harder-to-recycle plastic waste to poorer countries, essentially using these countries as “dumping grounds” for richer nations.
“Countries at the receiving end of mixed and unsorted plastic waste from foreign sources now have the right to refuse these problematic shipments, in turn, compelling source countries to ensure exports of clean, recyclable plastics only,” said Von Hernandez, the Break Free From Plastic global coordinator. “Recycling will not be enough, however. Ultimately, production of plastics has to be significantly curtailed to effectively resolve the plastic pollution crisis.” 
- “The giant mass of plastic waste taking over the Caribbean.” BBC. November 6, 2017
- “Shocking Photos Show Extent of Plastic Pollution in Caribbean.”Global Citizen. Joe McCarthy. December 27, 2017
- “Caribbean Islands Are The Biggest Plastic Polluters Per Capita In The World.” Forbes. Daphne Ewing-Chow. September 20, 2019
- “UN Hopes to Reduce Ocean Plastic Waste Within Five Years.” EcoWatch. Tiffany Duong. January 22, 2021