4 Views on the Ocean Plastic problem, and possible solutions

We provide here a summary of 4 perspectives on the problem of ocean plastic pollution, and the solutions and difficulties which they foresee. They are:
 

 
Ocean plastic waste and debris is an immense and growing problem. Not only is the quantity entering the ocean very substantial (estimated at 8 million tonnes per year), but the plastic does not biodegrade and so is extraordinarily long-lived, and whilst it does degrade due to weathering and environmental conditions it only does so into very smaller particles which, being buoyant, can easily mistaken as “food” and so enter into the marine food chain. Not only are marine mammals, reptiles and seabirds eating plastic which can lead to their premature death, but so also are fish and small marine animals. As a result marine animals throughout the ocean and at all trophic levels are being affected. This pollution of the ocean ultimately impacts adversely on us too and the terrestrial world.

Once in the ocean, plastic debris is drawn by currents into what are known as ocean gyres, circulatory current systems which exist in the central regions of each ocean, and it is here that the debris becomes concentrated into what has become known as “garbage patches”. These concentrations are very extensive, composed as much of tiny, often microscopic particles of plastic as they are of larger items, and extend in size in the case of the southern Pacific Ocean, for example, to around one million square miles.

The location of these ocean gyres and concentrations of plastic debris is illustrated below:

The five major ocean gyres
Source: Wikipedia

 

All the world’s larger gyres
Source: Wikipedia

We provide now a summary of the salient points from each of the four reports recorded at the opening of this article. For a full view of these reports, please access the hyperlink provided.

 

Artists Project Earth — Oceans Plastic Report: Solutions for Ocean Plastics and Agenda for action by Prof. Edward Kosior and Irene Crescenzi, 2017. To view, click here.

  • Over the last 50 years plastics production has risen 20 fold, from 15 to over 300 million tonnes per annum. It is expected to double again over the next 20 years, and almost quadruple by 2050.
  • 8 million tonnes of waste plastic is estimated to enter the ocean each year (Jambeck et al. 2013). There is now 150 million tonnes in the ocean. By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean (Ocean Conservancy, 2015).
  • This plastic migrates to ocean “garbage patches” in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. It also ends up stranded on coasts, and impacts islands within the ocean gyre e.g. Henderson Island in the Pitcairns (see here).
  • Plastic garbage disintegrates into small, millimetre-size fragments due to weathering and ultra-violet exposure from sunlight.
  • Zooplankton mistake tiny plastic particles for food, and once ingested these end up in their body tissue. Zooplankton are at the foot of the marine food chain. Larger objects are also eaten by marine animals and seabirds, and these may block their digestion systems.
  • Of the 8 million tonnes of plastic entering the sea each year, it is estimated that 80% originates from land (GESAMP 2015).
  • Currently there are no means of recovering plastic from the ocean. Prevention must therefore concentrate on eliminating waste plastic at source — primarily on land.
  • The amount of waste marine plastic originating annually from individual countries has been estimated (Jambeck et al. 2013). The principal countries are:
    China 2.25 mt
    Indonesia 0.8 mt
    Phillipines 0.5 mt
    Vietnam 0.5 mt
    Sri Lanka 0.4 mt
    The plastic originating from these 5 countries is thus estimated at 4.45 mt per annum which represents around 55% of the worldwide total (8 million tonnes per annum).
    The EU (23 countries) is 18th in the list of major contributors, the USA is 20th and India is 12th.
  • In addressing the solutions to this worldwide problem, the Artists Project Earth Campaign states:
    Currently there are no available tools that would be effective to collect and clean-up the accumulation of debris such as plastic items and micro-plastic fragments in the open oceans. Prevention at sources is therefore the key action to take in order to reduce the amount of plastics that reaches the oceans and its associated impacts.
    A combination of measures with a focus on reducing the rate at which waste is produced as well as ensuring that appropriate management measures are in place for the safe disposal of material that cannot be reused or recycled, is necessary.

What are the actions that should be taken to tackle the problem of plastics leaking into the oceans?

  • Reduce the production and usage of single-use plastic (packaging) and find more sustainable alternatives through the use of other materials such as card, paper or vegetable products that can be composted.
  • Collect and re-process single-use plastics instead of discarding them. Plastics must be directed into a reprocessing stream, to gain the value back and avoid disposal into landfill or the environment where it will stay for a very long time. In 2014 plastics’ production was estimated to be 311 million tons.
    Plastic packaging represents 26% of the total volume of plastic used. Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling and the plastics that do get recycled are mostly recycled into lower value applications that may not be recycled again after use.
    72% per cent of plastic packaging is not recovered at all — 40% is landfilled and 32% leaks out of the collection system (either not collected or illegally dumped or mismanaged) (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016).
  • Make brand-owners who package and sell products responsible for the environmentally-sound management of the packaging at the end of its life. This has been achieved thanks to the implementation of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programmes for packaging in Europe and North America. Extension to other regions is urgently needed.
  • Introduce incentives for collection and recycling of plastics and packaging in order to reduce the amount of waste produced and disposed. Beverage container deposit return systems are one successful example of such an incentive.
  • Reduce the amount of plastics that leak into the ocean or other parts of the environment by improving the collection systems and recovery infrastructure in the high leakage countries.
    High leakage countries are generally developing countries such as China, Indonesia, the Philippines or Vietnam that are experiencing a strong economic development with consequent increasing consumption of plastic products but they do not operate an efficient and appropriate waste management system.
    As a result, these countries are unable to appropriately manage the increasing amount of plastic waste which is produced.
  • Increase the value of plastics in order to incentivise plastics collection in countries where formal recycling systems are absent and replaced by informal systems, like for example waste-picking.

 

Algalita Marine Research Foundation, California, USAReport on the South Pacific Garbage Patch, 2017: Research by Charles Moore and Marcus Eriksen.

We provide the following extract from this Report:

Researchers were shocked to discover that a trash island floating in the South Pacific Ocean may be close to a million square miles in area. The current has gathered millions of tons of waste into one spot in the ocean to form a garbage pile that, if it were a country, would be the 30th largest in the world.

Trash islands are formed by ocean gyres, which are circulating ocean currents that gradually pull matter to their centre. The South Pacific Gyres has slowly sucked in human-made garbage dumped in the water by Pacific-facing countries, forming the massive island of garbage.

The island was discovered by a team led by oceanographer Charles Moore with the Algalita Marine Research and Education in Long Beach, California.

“We discovered tremendous quantities of plastic,” Moore, who was the first to discover the North Pacific garbage patch in the 1990s, told ResearchGate. “My initial impression is that our samples compared to what we were seeing in the North Pacific in 2007, so it’s about ten years behind.”

“We found a few larger items, occasionally a buoy and some fishing gear, but most of it was broken into bits,” Moore added. “We haven’t yet done lab analysis, but based on my visual impression, an enormous area of the South Pacific has millions of plastic particles per square kilometre.”

Moore was the discoverer of the North Pacific garbage patch, which is estimated in 1999 to be between 270,000 square miles (roughly the size of Texas) to 5,800,000 square miles (twice the size of Argentina).

“There’s a sense of urgency to get information out about this area because it’s being destroyed at an enormously accelerated rate” said Moore. “For much of the unexplored ocean, we will never have pre-plastic baseline data.” He estimates the trash island to be between 400,000 and 965,000 square miles (roughly the size of Zimbabwe and Egypt, respectively) in size.

Both Pacific patches appear to primarily consist of tiny, sometimes microscopic pieces of plastic. They post a major challenge to marine life, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British environmental charity.

In January, the Foundation put out a report on behalf of the United Nations that claimed that at the current rate of dumping (“the equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute,”) trash will outweigh fish in the world’s oceans by 2050. Marine life can also mistakenly consume these plastic pieces, which are toxic to most forms of aquatic life.

Furthermore, due to their extremely small size, these plastic grains are virtually impossible to effectively clean up. Marcus Eriksen, a marine pollution researcher who discovered the South Pacific patch in 2011, says that the only way to prevent the islands from growing any further is to stop introducing the plastic into the oceans.

“Gone are the silly notions that you can put nets in the ocean and solve the problem,” Eriksen told ResearchGate. “This cloud of microplastics extends both vertically and horizontally. It’s more like smog than a patch. We’re making tremendous progress to clean up smog over our cities by stopping the source. We have to do the same for our seas. ”

 

The Ocean Cleanup ProjectProject to clean-up the North Pacific Garbage Patch : The Ocean Cleanup is led by Boyan Slat, Delft, The Netherlands, and supported by public fund-raising (US$ 21.7million).

For a full explanation (video, 30 mins) of this project, see here.

Since November 2016 the Ocean Cleanup has raised $21.7 million in donations, allowing the Dutch foundation to begin preparing for large-scale trials of its cleanup technology in the Pacific Ocean.

The foundation was established four years ago in the Netherlands by Boyan Slat, who was 18 at the time. It currently employs nearly 65 engineers and researchers working on advanced technologies to tackle the problem of extreme plastic pollution of the world’s oceans.

The Ocean Cleanup team has developed a method which uses a network of large, solid floating barriers which act like an artificial coastline, enabling ocean currents to catch and concentrate plastic waste. The company claims the technology, already tested last year (2016) in the North Sea, will reduce the theoretical clean-up time of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from millennia down to years.

The latest investment pushes The Ocean Cleanup’s total amount raised since 2013 to $31.5 million. Most of this consists of donations from San Francisco-based philanthropists Marc and Lynne Benioff and an anonymous donor.

The money will be used to launch the first experimental clean-up system in the Pacific Ocean this year (2017), with plans to commence at a larger scale in 2018.

 

UK Government — the British Government has announced a forthcoming ban of the use of Microbead Plastic in Cosmetic Products to protect sealife, and to consult on further measures, 2017.

The UK Government (Defra) has announced, 21st July 2017, the results of its consultation on whether microbead plastics should be banned due to their adverse impact, particularly on the marine environment.

This Report provides a record of the public submissions made, the proposals the UK Government intends to authorise in connection with cosmetic and personal care products, and further thinking about extending the ban to other sources of microbead plastic pollution. 

We provide here extracts from this Report which record the salient features, and the relevant paragraph number from the Report is provided. The Report states:

Our Proposals:

58. We are grateful for the evidence received in response to this consultation. Based on this evidence the overall objective of our proposals remains to ban the use of rinse-off plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products where there is clear and robust evidence of harm to the marine environment.
Where appropriate we have used the responses to refine our proposals. The main features of our revised proposals are:

  1. the timescale for the ban in England becoming effective is unchanged: the ban on manufacture to start 1st Jan 2018 and the ban on sale 30th June 2018;
  2. we have developed precise definitions of “microbead”, “plastic” and “rinse-off personal care product” to clearly define the scope of the ban;
  3. we have retained the scope of rinse-off products, but are additionally working with the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee (HSAC) to assess the case for addressing further categories of products.
  4. we have identified Trading Standards as a suitable regulator to manage compliance and enforcement in England.
  5. enforcement in England will be carried out through a range of sanctions including variable monetary penalties, compliance notices, stop notices and enforcement undertakings; and
  6. the Devolved Administrations are considering appropriate enforcement mechanisms, regulators and timescales according to devolution settlements.

Issue raised: other sources of microplastic pollution.

60. Many respondents suggested other sources of marine microplastic pollution. Suggestions included pre-production plastic pellets (nurdles), microfibres released from washing machines, tyre particles, plastic beads used as aerators at wastewater treatment plants, the spreading of wastewater sludge as agricultural fertiliser, and polystyrene boxes used in the fishing industry to transport fish and keep them cold.

Issue raised: interventions to address other sources of marine microplastic pollution.

62. Some suggested methods to address some of these sources. The suggestions included:

  1. introducing a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles and/or other items;
  2. adding filters to washing machines to catch textile fibres released during washing;
  3. encouraging organisations and industries to sign up to Operation Clean Sweep, a plastics industry initiative to reduce the loss of pre-production pellets (nurdles);
  4. encouraging the use of biodegradable materials to replace the use of plastics, for example in agriculture;
  5. improving waste collections including biowaste such as compostable bags;
  6. increasing screening at sewage treatment works;
  7. encouraging the use of glass and metal/wood products over plastic; and
  8. improving education and improving enforcement to prevent fishing gear “loss”.

Government response: interventions to address other sources of marine microplastic pollution.

63. The UK aims for this to be the first generation since the industrial revolution to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited it. As such it has put in place a wide range of actions and policies to reduce and prevent marine litter.

64. The UK Marine Strategy Part Three, published in 2015, set out actions being taken to address litter in the marine environment. It covered actions to prevent land-based and sea-based sources of litter, actions to improve education and actions to remove litter that has already reached the marine
environment.

65. As marine litter is a transboundary problem we work with other countries through OSPAR and other international fora, including the G7 group and the United Nations Environment Programme. Through OSPAR the UK and neighbouring countries have developed and are implementing a Regional Action Plan on marine litter.

66. We also conduct monitoring of marine litter on beaches, in the water column and on the seafloor, and play an active role in advising and influencing marine litter and microplastics research.

67. We are discussing with environmental groups and research institutes how best to address pre-production pellet (nurdle) loss, such as by supporting the plastics industry to sign up to Operation Clean Sweep, an initiative to implement good practice aimed at reducing the loss of preproduction pellets during transport and use.

68. Much of the debris in the marine environment was originally lost or discarded on land and therefore actions to reduce waste and increase the efficiency of waste management systems contribute to a reduction in the amount of litter reaching the marine environment.

69. Supporting greater resource efficiency and increasing the effective use of resources is a key priority for the UK Government. We are working with producers across the whole material value chain to explore how products can be better designed and more efficiently produced to maximise the value we get from them and minimise the environmental impacts associated with their extraction, use and disposal.

70. Local Authorities are best placed to deliver local recycling services, and with householders have played a key role in increasing the UK’s recycling rate to 44% in 2015/16. The amount of plastics sent for recycling has increased. The total amount of plastic material collected from waste from households for recycling has increased from 279k tonnes in 2010, to over 420k tonnes in 2014.

71. Recycling rates have remained relatively stable since 2012, after increasing strongly from 2000. To meet the 50% target the Government recognises the need to work with local authorities to expand the range of materials collected, including plastics, and to make it easier for householders to recycle.

78. While there is currently no plastic proven to fully biodegrade in the marine environment, the Government supports the development of sustainable biodegradable plastics and other materials. We have committed to work with the Research Councils to help develop a standard for biodegradable plastic bags as part of the emerging work on a national Bioeconomy Strategy (while also recognising the need to avoid microplastics pollution).

79. In June 2017 the UK joined the UN Clean Seas campaign, a platform which aims to connect individuals, civil society groups, industry and governments to transform habits, practices, standards and policies around the globe to dramatically reduce marine litter and the harm it causes.

80. The OSPAR Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter includes a number of relevant actions including one to evaluate all products and processes that include primary microplastics and act, if appropriate, to reduce their impact on the marine environment. We will share relevant responses from this
consultation with OSPAR to support their implementation of their Regional Action Plan.

81. We will continue to assess the potential for further actions to reduce marine plastic pollution.

 

Marinet Comment

The magnitude and complexity of the problem is clearly evident from the 4 foregoing contributions. Equally important, if a little understated by them, is the threat to the life of the ocean as an ecosystem, and thus the planet, from the immensity of this pollution. Be in no doubt, plastic pollution is toxic. Therefore its all pervasive presence is now a profound threat to the ocean’s health. Ours being an ocean planet, this means all planetary life because it is the ocean that drives and sustains the planet’s life-systems.

So if the ocean dies, or its biodiversity and ecology collapses, then be in no doubt — Earth will be facing a mass extinction.

This is not a statement designed to cause panic. Rather, it is one designed to cause us to start thinking deeply and with originality. It is clear that the existing paradigm — our pattern of life as we currently live it — has to change fundamentally. We cannot go on releasing vast amounts of waste plastic in the ocean where it persists almost indefinitely (decades, even centuries) and poisons marine life, whilst we have no idea of how to solve or eradicate the problem.

We have to design a new normal. This means a world where plastic is no longer ubiquitous in the things we use, and where and when it is used it is collected properly after use and is re-used. It also means where reuse is not possible, plastic will naturally biodegrade or be disposed of safely. Equally fundamental, we have to action this.

There is no sign of this new normal at the present time.

Hence the problem is growing worse, and will continue to do so.

Artists Planet Earth has, in their Report, correctly identified the changes in our behaviour and economic systems which need to occur. The question is, will they? And the question is made more complex by the fact that it is the developing economies in the Asian Pacific who are at the heart of the problem, and probably impervious to our “western ecological thinking” as proposed here.

Algalita Marine Research Foundation has taken important steps to map and define the problem, both in terms of geographical scale and in terms of the character of the problem which is composed substantially of microscopic plastic particles existing in suspension in the ocean, and thus resistant to mechanical “collection systems”. Their solution, like that of Artists Planet Earth, is action at the source of the problem — prevent plastic leaving the land.

The Ocean Cleanup is an engineering solution, operating on a grand scale and collecting plastic whilst it is still in a larger form. If practical, and design prototypes perform according to expectation, this can begin to remove a problem for which, at present, there is no known form of removal. However what does one do with the plastic once collected, and especially if has been retrieved in the vast amounts required to impact the problem? The plastic is beyond further use. It therefore either has to be landfilled — where and how — or it is incinerated thus exacerbating immensely the problem of carbon in the atmosphere — unless the carbon can be recaptured and stored, see here.

The UK Government is definitely taking the correct step to ban microbead plastic from cosmetics and personal care products. This needs to be repeated by Governments worldwide, and for industry itself to follow a similar initiative. It also means revaluating the use of artificial fibres (essentially plastic) in clothing and in tyres and other utilitarian products, and to ruthlessly examining and preventing the means by which micro-plastic in general is able to enter the ocean. This is a challenge not just for government, but also for industry worldwide.

Is all of this possible?

The answer is no. Not unless we establish a new normal.

A normal where plastic is no longer universally used. A normal where alternative materials and practices have replaced it. A normal where the prevention of plastic waste, and the elimination of the pollution that arises from plastic wastes, has become the default position.

A normal where the economic system is actively engaged in solving this problem, and acting on the solution as an opportunity to maximise financial reward.

A normal where we, each one of us as individuals, have decided that we no longer want to live in a world with this problem, and so are making life — what we buy, what we think, what we recommend and insist upon — which affect how the economic and political systems operate in the future.

In short, a normal where we are rewarding actions focused on solving this problem.

This is why Marinet has presented these 4 perspectives to you — those of Artists Planet Earth, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the Ocean Cleanup Project, and the UK Government’s proposed ban on microbead plastic. They are all avenues into this new normal.

Governance and management by us of the ocean requires a new paradigm, view here for Marinet’s larger, global proposal.

We cannot leave this matter to governments alone. This issue requires the action and creative thinking of us all. Above all else, it is an issue — a problem and its solution — which we must decide to “own” and to have responsibility for.

Unless this happens, nothing changes. The new normal is still-born.

The UK Government is certainly right in its aspiration in the paragraph of its proposal where it declares: “The UK aims for this to be the first generation since the industrial revolution to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited it.”

So, to repeat the question — is all of this possible?

The answer is yes — provided you want it to be, and you take action to make it so.

Marinet Limited
August 2017.
www.marinet.org.uk

 


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