Guest post by Mark J. Spalding, President, The Ocean Foundation
23 April 2018
Do you use your reusable water bottle and coffee mug?
Do you use your reusable shopping bags?
Do you remember to say “no straw” when ordering a drink?
Good for you! You’re part of the solution.
Do you own a fleece vest or throw?
Do you own yoga wear or other synthetic clothing items?
Sorry. You’re part of the problem, too.
We all know that plastic waste is a problem. It is a particular problem for the ocean. Currently approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every year! That’s enough to line every foot of our coast.
Ocean plastics can loosely be categorized in the following ways:
Marine Debris—This includes everything from construction materials to beer coolers, but when we’re talking about ocean plastics, we generally mean the bigger pieces that are easily seen and can readily be picked up. Part of this is debris from marine sources such as fishing gear.
Microplastics—These are the tiny pieces that plastic breaks into over time—not disintegrating, but simply fragmenting, making it ever more accessible to marine life. Microplastics are found in every part of our global ocean.
Microfibers—These are the very tiny fibers from your fleece, athletic, or other synthetic clothing that shed every time you wash them in a machine. They are everywhere in the ocean as well as in lakes, rivers, streams, and even your drinking water.
So, what does plastic in the ocean do? Some effects are not fully understood—such as the degree to which microfibers themselves or the toxins they carry cause harm in humans and other animals and at what scale. Others we know all too well.
Plastic poisons and injures marine life as shellfish, corals, and other marine life eat microplastics and fibers as they filter for real food. Whales, fish, and other animals get entangled in derelict fishing gear and other debris and die a slow painful death from asphyxiation or starvation. When animals—sea birds and corals for example—take in plastics, it leaves no room for real food—and they suffer starvation as a result.
Plastic is capable of emitting and absorbing or carrying all types of toxins, including flame-retardants and pesticides (DDT). Small pieces of plastics e.g. microplastics (microbeads, microfibers) can serve as vector for chemicals to get into the bodies of marine animals, where they can accumulate in fat cells. These can damage tissues and organ function. They can be absorbed into the brains of fish, altering behavior. Plastic is also a vector for bacteria and viruses.
These properties of plastic, especially microplastics, have implications for human health as we consume fish and shellfish. Two Belgian researchers, looking at the amount of microplastics in some shellfish, concluded in 2014 that the average European seafood consumer could be eating 11,000 pieces of microplastic every year. And that’s just in shellfish (mussels in particular in this case).
Plastic litters our beaches and landscapes which in turn affects tourism revenue. It’s no surprise that people like to visit clean beaches more than dirty ones. It also affects community health not only for the reasons above, but because plastic waste can collect water, allowing disease-bearing mosquitoes to breed, and poorly managed debris can clog the outflows of rivers and streams, causing flooding.
So, what is it about single-use plastics? They represent somewhere between a third and a half of all global plastics production, which reached about 335 million metric tons in 2016. Some single use plastics should stay that way—especially for hypodermics and other medical uses. Others should be used only when and where they meet a unique or emergency need—think plastic straws, bottled water, bottled sodas, and plastic packaging—and that’s probably not in the EU or the US. Finland is one leader on plastics management, the European Union is doing quite well over all.
The scale of use is overwhelming. We buy about 1 million plastic bottles every minute of every day! Where sanitation is a huge problem (e.g. hurricanes, floods, etc.) bottled water is a public health good and delivery in plastic is cheaper. But for daily use, it’s the more expensive choice, has a huge climate footprint, and is a big part of the plastic waste mismanagement problem. Only 1 percent of the 4 trillion plastic bags used annually is recycled. We use half a BILLION plastic straws a day in the U.S. alone—almost two for every man woman and child!
So where is the plastic coming from besides littering? More than two billion people live without any waste collection. In China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines ― which were identified in a 2015 Ocean Conservancy report as the top five plastic-polluting nations in the world ― the amount of mismanaged waste was close to 75 percent or more of the total waste generated. Getting a handle on that source at scale is a slow process because of the nature of governance in those countries and the ways in which waste disposal is managed.
Landfills can leak harmful pollutants into the watershed and plastics on top of a landfill can be carried away by the wind and rainwater. Out of 50 largest uncontrolled dumpsites around the world, 38 of these are on the coast and spill directly into the sea. Thanks to sea level rise and storms, coastal landfills are eroding everywhere creating challenges for waste managers even in places where waste management has been reasonably well-addressed. The United States is one of the world’s top five waste-generating developed countries.
Plastic waste to enter the ocean from land is expected to increase tenfold within 7 years. Can you even visualize 80 million metric tons?
More on the Danger to fish and humans:
What are the Trends? New uses for plastic are being discovered all the time—and the demand for lightweight, flexible, sterile, and inexpensive packaging and other materials grows as the population grows. Plastic production is growing exponentially and is expected to double again in 20 years. Thus, plastic waste is too.And, we’re not doing a great job of managing it. As of 2015, 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste has been generated since the end of World War 2. Only about 9 percent of that has been recycled—the rest was burned, is sitting in landfills, or is slowly breaking into smaller pieces on land or in the water.
Perhaps the most famous example of the scale of the plastic problem in the ocean is the ever-expanding “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a gyre in the Pacific Ocean where currents and winds have fostered the movement of plastic waste into a defined area. The Patch is a mixture of marine debris, microplastics, and ocean life including microscopic crabs hitching a ride—and now covers an area three times the size of France! And it is just one of the five ocean gyres where plastic has collected.
But as famous as the Patch is, the sad truth is that plastic waste—at every scale—is found throughout the global ocean, in bays and estuaries, in the deepest crevasses, and the coastal marshes, mangrove forests, and seagrass meadows. It is everywhere.
So, how do we end plastic pollution?
We’re human. We’d like to engineer away the problem- like a magic pill to lose weight or live forever.
What removal system is being tested? It is likely you have heard of the young Dutchman Boyan Slat and his ocean boom system. The idea is that the booms will be towed out to the Pacific from San Francisco to begin operating next July. The system involves hanging nets from booms (made, of course from plastic pipe) and using drifting anchors positioned almost 2000 feet down to tap into where the ocean currents are slower than they are at the surface.
The idea is that the floating plastic debris will move faster than the booms, and thus be concentrated into a central area held by the booms. Fish and other sea life are expected to swim under the nets. Ships are to collect the gathered trash once a month to convert it to pellets or other purposes. Slat raised $2.2 million in crowdfunding from 40 countries, and millions more in California to test the prototype and begin the process of moving it thousands of miles out to sea for deployment.
The challenges include the potential for “corralling” of ocean life; addressing the incredible amount of energy (and expense) to go out to collect the trash and transport it back; as well as unintended consequences. And, of course, this collects plastic of a certain size at the surface and not the debris that has sunk nor the microplastics found everywhere. Booms have proven to be one good way to capture debris in streams and rivers to prevent their migration to the sea.
Prevention is key. The plastic already in the ocean is nearly impossible to collect, especially at scale, without harm to sea life.
It’s very simple really: Don’t let the plastic get into the ocean.
What you can do with your friends, colleagues, and family: Collectively, we are addressing many of the key problems, beginning with promoting personal action. None of what we recommend is new, and we hope repetition helps. Bad habits are hard to break—especially when it’s easier to just go with the plastic flow! The people who make the biggest difference are the ones who do the little things consistently.
Personal Action is a big start—but real change has to be regional, national, and even global in scale.
We are positioning plastic pollution as a major environmental and transnational problem—
choose to reject plastic where we can identify safer alternatives
I should note that we all can be part of the outreach. A good starting point is Earth Day Network’s toolkits and web-based content to educate and support behavior change and action for different audiences.
Existing studies have shown us the sources and some of the pathways towards cost-effective solutions, but waste management and pollution prevention is a government scale challenge. Countries and corporations have to do their part—the public truly understands and expects them to fulfill this role.
And there is an inherent financial incentive to do so even beyond the obvious benefits. For example, governments and tourism businesses know that a clean beach makes money, and a dirty beach turns visitors away. The same sort of argument can be made for better waste management everywhere. Likewise, good waste management has a positive impact on public health which also reduces costs and increases productivity.
Corporations are working on a variety of solutions, some that monetize ocean plastics, and others that address a challenge. Patagonia and other outdoor clothing manufacturers are striving to figure out how to address the microfiber problem especially since synthetics have their own advantages. Adidas is producing the first shoe made from recycled ocean plastic. Bureo has its skateboard decks made from recycled fishing gear. Norton Point has its “Tide” line, featuring sunglasses made from recycled ocean plastic.
We need national government policies that mimic the European Union’s guidelines for waste and to promote the adoption of a global framework to regulate plastic pollution. Such polices:
Governments need to respond to, and work with, NGOs organizing on the ground to promote waste management practices that improve public health and water quality. Some NGOs are working with small island communities to identify ways to substitute fuel or use alternative methods to burning plastic trash for cooking fuel—a practice that is harmful to humans and marine life alike.
To address packaging, we can all support policies in our communities that charge fees for plastic bags that in turn pay for cleanup and restoration and promote circular economy solutions to excess packaging waste. When local efforts to address plastic pollution are stymied by state governments, we can work to educate our legislators about the costs of dealing with plastic waste and the need for local and state action to reduce the amount we use it in the first place.
The R&D costs for alternatives to plastics, for better, cost-effective, and energy-efficient recycling methods, and to define cost-effective clean up solutions is way beyond more non-government organizations’ capacity. It’s a role for countries and corporations, and some exciting projects are under way.
For example, in 2016, Japanese scientists reported the discovery of bacteria that is able to digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—the plastic primarily used for making plastic bottles—in less than six weeks. More recently, scientists from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S say they have engineered a plastic eating enzyme from that bacteria that breaks down PET even faster. It is going to now be tested on an industrial scale to see if it improves the management of plastics—better broken down into its constituent parts and reused than sitting in a landfill or blowing into the ocean. It is also to be hoped that any large-scale production of bacteria and enzymes is monitored carefully and managed for unintended consequences.
It is also possible that these processes will prove to be a cost-effective way to turn plastics back into constituent parts as fuel that can be used to generate electricity. Waste to energy also includes burning plastics for fuel, but we have to do it cleanly to avoid air pollution problems.
Personal action, corporate programs, and government strategies offer opportunities to address the global challenge of plastic pollution and the harm it inflicts on our ocean.
There is hope. All we have to do is to stop putting bad stuff into the ocean! And, this is why we get up each morning.
The content of this article reflects the Keynote speech given by Mark J. Spalding, President of The Ocean Foundation, at the Embassy of the Republic of Finland on April 23rd, 2018, during the Dialogue on Ending Plastic Pollution: Opportunities for the Public and Private Sectors. The event was co-hosted by Earth Day Network, DC Greening Embassies Forum, and the Embassy of Finland.
Mark is a member of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. He is serving on the Sargasso Sea Commission. Mark is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Blue Economy, at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In addition, he serves as the CEO and President of SeaWeb, is the advisor to the Rockefeller Ocean Strategy (an unprecedented ocean-centric investment fund) and designed the first-ever blue carbon offset program, SeaGrass Grow.