With HRM suddenly facing a torrent of plastic waste with no place to sell or hide it, maybe it should do what New York did for decades — dump it offshore. By night, if need be. Out of sight, out of mind. The sea is so big!

I’m kidding, of course. But only to make a point. Which is this: as bad as our landward crisis seems, a worse plastic menace looms at sea. Because that’s where most of the plastic we discard on land — less than a fifth gets recycled — ends up anyway.

Add to that the half-million-plus plastic items shamelessly dumped overboard each year by the world’s merchant marine alone. Scientists say that in 30 years, plastic ocean waste already may outweigh fish life.

It’s become so bad that the Great Pacific Gyre, that vast oceanic swirl between North America and Japan, is now called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Roughly the size of Africa, it dwarfs five other floating garbage dumps circling other seas. And now we’re letting summer cruise ships into the Arctic Ocean!

Last summer, I did an informal survey of one small East Coast beach. Inside my sample area of only 70 square metres, I collected five sacks of the usual suspects: pop and detergent bottles, toys, lobster buoys, broken nets, poly rope, shotgun shells, beach signs, tampon applicators — and, of course, plastic bags.

Granted, that didn’t all arrive last year; it accumulated over time. Petroleum-based plastics — still the cheapest to produce — are virtually indestructible at sea. Yes, on land, exposed to sun and air, they soon go brittle and fall apart. In cold ocean water, this takes decades, if not centuries — maybe more. No one really knows.

Remember, plastic film has only been around since the Second World War. As a test, U.K. researcher Richard Thompson tied plastic grocery bags to undersea wharf pilings. A year later, the bags were still intact and usable. Alan Weisman, in his 2007 book The World Without Us, is blunter: he says “Polymers are forever.”

Worse, oil-based plastic seldom sinks. It floats on top or hovers in the water column. That’s why sea turtles mistake these plastics for jellyfish and choke to death.

As the flotsam breaks into ever smaller fragments, cod and herring mistake it for fish eggs or larvae and die of constipation. Finally, at micro and molecular levels, the particles become nearly invisible threads called nurdles.

Cute name; deadly menace. For at that level, they not only get eaten by lugworms, barnacles and sand fleas, but by microscopic plankton. Worse, the nurdles absorb ocean toxins, creating poison pills for microscopic zooplankton.

Worse still, now there’s exfoliants: “Little granules to massage you as you bathe.” Some are OK, but most are polyethylene micro-spheres (plastic beads) designed to go right down the drain, into the sewers, into the rivers into the sea.

The threat is obvious. Microscopic plankton support the entire marine food chain. They also produce about half our atmospheric oxygen. If enough plankton die, entire oceanic ecosystems can collapse. Seas might even become anoxic — oxygen-less, acidic — a condition suspected of causing massive land and sea die-offs in geologic time.

What can individuals do?

Apart from lobbying governments to ban plastic bags and magazine wraps, we can practise that Sixties slogan: “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!”

And when asked, “Would you like that bagged?” say “No thanks, just the receipt please.” And pop it into those reusable tote bags we finally remembered to bring.

With luck, we won’t end up drinking nurdle soup after all.