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THE PLASTIC BOTTLE by Nikola Mitevski

A plastic bottle rested on a small outcrop of sand somewhere in twilit Pebble Beach, California.

There was nothing extraordinary about the bottle. It used to contain half a liter of sugary Pepsi, but now it was empty and slowly filling with sand, for its cap had been lost somewhere else. Some satisfied golfer probably threw it off the cliff instead of throwing it away. There was no message inside the bottle, nor any semblance of a fancy or intricate design on its transparent shell.

It had escaped the dreaded recycling process and the furnace that had melted down so many of its kin and reformed them into new products to begin the cycle anew. Being just a plastic bottle, it did not realize the fate it had avoided, nor the fact that billions of its kind existed in the world.

Suddenly, a particularly strong wave lapped the shore, grabbing hold of the bottle and pulling it away from the beach. Instead of lying still on the wet sand, it was now floating in shallow, ice-cold waters. With each successive wave, the bottle drifted further and further away from shore. An evening groundskeeper noticed the bottle and pointed it out to his companion, who merely shrugged half-heartedly and went back to his work.

“The waves will probably push it back onto shore,” they thought.

But the waves didn’t comply. The bottle continued to flee the shore, rapidly filling up with water. It glistened in the last rays of the brilliant sunset.

Then night fell on the calm waters.

The darkness was no hindrance to the plastic bottle. It continued its journey until the bright lights of the resorts and clubs on the coast were just pinpoints in the distance. The waters were still docile, but now the bottle had strayed into a strange current. The force from the current flipped the bottle over and over as it tumbled through the ocean.

Due to the absence of light pollution from being so far out in the ocean, the slowly brightening night sky was speckled with countless stars, almost as if someone shook a snowglobe and set the tiny pieces of glitter into the heavenly canvas. Nothing but the bottle was around to witness this incredible sight, but then again, the plastic bottle didn’t understand the beauties and designs of the world anyway.

Day came, and with it a vivid sunrise that splattered the entire sky with streaks of fiery colors. The plastic bottle had somehow broken free of the current that gripped it so tight and was again floating on the open waters.

Nothing notable happened throughout the bottle’s day of travel except for the passage of an old fishing boat. The sailors aboard were evidently celebrating their fresh catches during the night, as evidenced by their rambunctious cheers and multiple crumpled cans of beer being chucked into the ocean. One Corona, still half-full, narrowly missed the bottle, splashing a few inches away and pushing the bottle to the side. Nevertheless, this did not alter its path.

Night fell again, blanketing the ocean in suffocating darkness. Even the bright stars and crescent Moon were not able to dispel it. This time unaided by a current, the bottle floated in more or less the same location for much of the night. Only just before the gray skies gave way to the sunrise did the bottle catch a gust of ocean wind that propelled it forward just enough to resume its momentum.

The second day passed without incident until just after noon. The bottle unknowingly entered the reach of one of the great Pacific currents off the coast of California. Aptly named the California Current, its force was more than enough to send the bottle hurtling through the ocean at remarkable speeds. It was now racing slightly under the waterline, just as an Olympic swimmer surfaces their head occasionally for spurts of air while dashing forward to win the medal.

On several occasions, the bottle passed other pieces of plastic waste, including a bottle of Dasani now filled with salty water and a cheap plastic coat hanger. It seemed that all of them were destined to go wherever the current took them since by now the plastic bottle was too far from the edges to break free of its grasp. Eventually, each of these visitors soon drifted away on various subcurrents, leaving the bottle alone again.

Nightfall brang a very strange occurrence for the plastic bottle. A young dolphin swam up to the bottle, curiously eyeing it for a few moments. It tried to swallow the bottle but immediately learned that the bottle couldn’t be eaten and spat it out. The dolphin swam along with the bottle for about an hour, nudging it periodically to see if it would notice. Once the dolphin realized that the bottle was about as animated as the water around them, it grew bored and swam away.

On the third day, several small boats passed by the bottle. These, like the fishing boat, had nets trailing behind them, except they weren’t full of fish. Instead, each boat dragged a massive haul of every kind of trash: small, large, glass, plastic, metal, rubber, and many more. One of the boats passed particularly close to the plastic bottle, and the ensuing ripples threw the bottle into a spin before the current finally stabilized it again.

In the evening, the adhesive connecting the Pepsi wrapper to the bottle finally gave way, and the wrapper soon drifted out of sight with almost graceful undulations. Now, the bottle was nothing, with no means of identifying what it once was nor what it could have become had it been properly disposed of. None of this mattered to the bottle, though.

Nightfall came with an unexpected storm. The raging winds and giant waves buffeted the bottle, hurling it back and forth. It sank under the surface, broke the surface, then sank under it again. A small plastic bag nearby was suddenly lifted off the water by the wind and flew away into the pouring rain. The bottle, however, was too heavy to be carried by the wind, so it spent the rest of the night being battered from all sides by the brutal weather.

By morning, the storm had ceased, but dark gray clouds still hung ominously in the sky, blotting out the sun. The plastic bottle was given a reprieve from the vicious waves and continued on its course along the current.

That day, the bottle entered the first layer of its final destination.

Various types of plastic waste started appearing in much greater frequency then before. A few days ago, it was rare to even spot one piece of trash near the plastic bottle. Now, dozens of them dotted the sea, the lighter ones sometimes being gently lifted by the wind and settling onto the water again quickly. They were almost like fledglings trying to make their first flight, but nature kept pushing them back down into their nest as soon as they tried.

The bottle kept bumping into other waste throughout the day, at one point drifting into an open Chinese takeout bag and carrying the bag with it for a while. The storm clouds slowly retreated, then were lost as darkness enveloped the ocean.

Sometime during the night, the plastic bottle entered the second stage of its destination. The only sign that it had done so was the massively increased amount of interactions between the bottle and other waste. Now, the bottle collided with plastic waste and shot in the other direction for a while before being pulled by the current again, like a pinball bouncing off the obstacles before gravity pulled it down.

The sun peeked over the horizon yet again, bathing the skies in beautiful colors. The light shined down on a large blob seemingly floating on the line between sea and sky.

The final destination of the bottle was now in sight at long last.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The resting place of trash from all over the world, swept up by gyres and currents and brought to this calm patch of ocean. Its size rivaled that of the largest countries and dwarfed every island around it in every direction.

That was where the boats carrying trash had come from. That was where the other waste had drifted away once they disappeared out of sight.

That was where the bottle would finally rest, beaten and worn from its long journey through the great expanse of the Pacific.

Well, until the next garbage-collecting barge sails into the Patch, anyway.

Then the bottle might finally be recycled and begin the journey again.

"The Plastic Bottle" was selected as an Honorable Mention in the 2023 Nature's Story Contest


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