Thursday, June 8, 2017

Tackling the Problem of Plastic Waste on World Oceans Day

June 8 is World Oceans Day an opportunity to reflect on the importance of our oceans as well as solutions to the numerous threats they face. In 2017 the action focus is plastic pollution. Our oceans are indispensable to life of Earth and fate of humanity is intimately tied to their well-being. Our oceans are hotter and more acidic and they are increasingly unable to serve as carbon sinks. Coral reefs are dying and entire aquatic ecosystems are being destroyed. Norwegian billionaire and ocean advocate Kjell Inge Røkke aptly summarized situation when he said, "the oceans are also under greater pressure than ever before from overfishing, coastal pollution, habitat destruction, climate change and ocean acidification, and one of the most pressing challenges of all, plasticization of the ocean. The need for knowledge and solutions is pressing."

Many of these issues are intertwined. For example global warming appears to be contributing to an alarming decline in the amount of dissolved oxygen in the world's ocean. Low ocean oxygen is part of a feedback loop which sees microorganisms produce the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. These effects could lead to ocean dead zones that are deadly for a number of marine organisms. It could even lead to a complete breakdown of aquatic food chains. These are some of the findings in a large research synthesis conducted by oceanographer Sunke Schmidtko and two colleagues from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. The research was published in the journal Nature.

Market growth

Plastic (celluloid) was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869, however it was the invention and mass manufacturing of cheap oil based plastic in the 1960s that has led our current crisis. In 1965 we were producing about 15 million tons of plastic each year we now produce more than 300 million tons every year.

The plastic market has averaged 5 percent growth per year since 2000 primarily in packaging. Between 2000 and 2015, plastic used in packaging grew from 17 percent of market share to 25 percent. Plastic is now a $427 billion industry in the US alone. It employs nearly one million American workers and it is the third largest US manufacturing industry. Estimates indicate that if the trend continues by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean, by weight, than fish.

Existential threat

Yayat Supriatna, an urban planning scholar who has advised the Indonesian government said, "People don’t understand how dangerous plastic can be." Plastic is toxic and can be deadly. It is estimated that one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles become entrapped in plastic or ingest it and die each year. Plastic is already killing millions of creatures and there is mounting evidence to suggest that plastic may be an existential threat to our species.

Plastic has become ubiquitous because it is cheap, lightweight, strong and durable. Its cheapness is due to the fact that we found a way to make it with oil. Its strength and durability are what makes it so dangerous. Plastic bottles in the ocean will not break down for 4 centuries and even then it lives eternally on as "poisonous confetti".

In 2016 a couple of sperm whales washed up on shores of Germany having starved to death due to a belly full of plastic. This is a redux of a whale found dead in the waters off the Greek isle of Mykonos in 2011. Whales are just one of many creatures that are threatened by plastic waste.

As quoted in a PRI investigative piece, oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the man who coined the term "gyres" said, plastic pollution, "makes global warming look like child’s play". He suggests that plastic may even threaten the survival of some species including humans.

He explained the pervasive nature of the threat by saying, "We’re all infected with plastic...Molecules from some kid’s plastic bottle, dropped into the ocean in Asia, are winding up in the food Americans eat." This, Ebbesmeyer said could interfere with reproduction in a number of studies including humans.

There has been a marked decline in sperm counts which some have attributed to plastic pollution. This includes the carcinogenic synthetic estrogen imitators contained in Bisphenol A (BPA). Almost everybody has traces of BPA in their bodies. Research suggests that exposure to plastics can even impact the fertility of subsequent generations. Biological scientist, Frederick vom Saal, told Mother Jones magazine, "A poison kills you. A chemical like BPA reprograms your cells and ends up causing a disease in your grandchild that kills him."

Sizable problem

The scope of the problem is mind boggling. There are massive, swirling patches of plastic in our oceans. Some of the gyres hold around 400,000 plastic particles per square kilometre.

We continue to add 8 million tons of plastic to the oceans every year. There are 5.2 trillion bits of plastic in the sea. The problem is growing so fast that in the not too distant future plastic could soon cover half the planet’s surface. In some places there is six times more plastic in the water than plankton. The problem is growing so fast that in the not too distant future plastic could soon cover half the planet’s surface. In some places there is six times more plastic in the water than plankton.

Americans throw out more than 45,000 plastic bottles per minute or 2.5 million plastic bottles per hour. Globally people use roughly one million plastic bags per minute.

Plastic is now everywhere on the planet. Researchers from Australia’s University of Tasmania and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found 18 tonnes of plastic garbage (239 items per square metre) scattered across a small South Pacific island 5,000 kilometers from the nearest human occupation.

The threats associated with plastics are significant. University of Tasmania researcher Jennifer Lavers said plastic in the oceans could be as great a threat as climate change. "You put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or plastic in the oceans and both will stick around," she told New Scientist.

According to an aerial survey by inventor Boyan Slat the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans is worse than we thought. The survey of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, collected over 1,000 large pieces of garbage in under 2 hours.

Government action

France has announced that it is banning all plastic bags, plastic utensils, cups, and dishes by 2020. At the end of 2015, US President Barack Obama signed a bill requiring that American manufacturers end the use of microbeads in products by July 1, 2017 and end the sale of products containing microbeads in by July 1, 2018. In June 2016 Canada's federal government decision added plastic microbeads to the Schedule 1 list of toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), enabling the government to regulate and ultimately ban the substance.

Oceans are not being protected as they should. Taking a page from the oil industry the US the plastics industry lobbyists have been successful petitioned government in an effort to minimize regulatory oversight.

The patchwork of laws and agreements, along with uneven enforcement are problematic. We also must deal with the difficult issue of waters outside national jurisdictions. We need more protections, more science and more transparency.


The problem of plastic waste is a business problem that must be solved by business innovation. Western multinationals like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever, Nestle and Coca-Cola produce much of the world's plastic waste. However, thus far too little is being done to address the problem. "The corporations may offer a bit of charity here and there," Yayat says. "But they don’t really help. They’ll say the environment is the government’s responsibility."

There are powerful incentives driving corporate action. The sustainable plastic market was estimated to have reached $142.42 billion in 2015. In a Triple Pundit article about the new plastic economy Leon Kaye makes the point that the business community needs to drive a transition in the plastics industry.

"There is a large consensus that the plastics economy needs a fundamental rethink and redesign," said Rob Opsomer, the New Plastics Economy Lead with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "and that the New Plastics Economy sets an economically and environmentally attractive direction to make that happen."

The single-use plastics industry contributes anywhere from $80 billion to $120 billion in material value losses annually. Further, as referenced above plastic polutes natural environment. This and other environmental problems associated with single-use plastic cost the global economy at least $40 billion a year.


There are a number of innovations from the corporate sector that may help. In 2012 Italian company Bio-on unveiled a bioplastics polymer that is 100 percent biodegradable in water and soil. S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. launched an initiative to help build the infrastructure to eventually make Ziploc packaging bags widely recyclable via curbside recycling programs. Ford has replaced plastic car parts with parts made from carbon dioxide. Craft brewery is now making its six pack holders with an edible and biodegradable alternative made of barley and wheat remnants from the brewing process.

In April of this year, the BBC's Helen Briggs reported on a caterpillar that eats plastic.  Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered a plastic eating moth larvae (Galleria mellonella) that breaks down plastic's chemical bonds. It is hoped that researchers may be able to identify microbes in the caterpillar that could be used to dispose of plastic waste in an environmentally friendly fashion. The research was published in the journal, Current Biology.


We know that plastic is very useful, what we need is an alternative to oil based plastics that are not so environmentally harmful. This is especially important in light of the fact that only 14 percent of plastic is currently being recycled. So in addition to doing a much better job of recycling we need to make biodegradable plastics that do not use oil.

A Trucost sustainability focused life cycle report says that plastics cost $139 billion each year. However, it also suggests that plastic alternatives may be worse for the environment. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) funded report is titled, "Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement." The report drew on natural capital assessments and found the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging to be almost 4 times less than existing alternatives (glass, tin, aluminum and paper). In terms of dollar amounts, the report says that non-plastic alternatives comes with environmental costs of $533 billion annually compared to $139 billion with plastics.

However, there are other potentially viable alternatives. One renewable possibility includes hemp and other fast-growing plants containing cellulose. Companies including IBM, Ford and Dell are working to develop viable alternatives to plastics for use in products and packaging. IBM researchers said they have found a way to create cheaper, biodegradable plastic from plants. This follows a plastics recycling process IBM researchers announced last year.

We also need to be wary of false solutions. For example so called compostable plastics are not quite as helpful as it would seem. As explained by Danny Clark, "compostable plastics don’t breakdown and convert into compost or result in nutrient rich soil as the process and name would lead one to believe." Rather than put carbon into the soil, compostable plastics add CO2 (the most abundant greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere.

Circular economy

If it could be made to be viable the circular economy offers the most hope of reducing plastic waste.  The European Commission announced its Circular Economy Action Plan, which is working towards closing the loop on plastics. At a recent World Economic Forum (WEF)in Davos, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the "New Plastics Economy initiative" with the report, "The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics."

As reported by Environmental Leader, this plastics initiative is designed to increase recycling and reuse as well as increase the use of bioplastics. This initiative enjoys the support of some major companies including Amcor, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical and Mars. The launch followed a report that pointed to $3.5 billion in potential environmental savings.

As reported by Thomas Schueneman, new prizes are inspiring innovation. On May 18th 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced a $2 million plastics innovation prize in partnership with the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit. This initiative includes support from more than 40 organizations, including Core Partners Amcor, Coca-Cola, Danone, Mars, Novamont, PepsiCo, Unilever and Veolia. The two part $1 million Circular Design Challenge invites applicants to rethink how we can get products to people without generating plastic waste.

"Working towards circularity in the way we make, use, and distribute plastic packaging will revolutionize the scale of the human footprint on our planet," said Wendy Schmidt, who has already funded two major XPrize competitions focused on oceans. "The value of keeping materials in the economy is massive compared to the losses we suffer when plastic leaks into the very living systems we depend upon for our survival. The New Plastics Economy Prize is a call for creative design and technical innovation at a critical time."

People making a difference

Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke has made a fortune from shipping and offshore drilling. He is building the largest and heaviest yacht in the world. What makes this ship exceptional is the fact that it can extract up to five tons of plastic from the ocean every day. Norway's World Wildlife Fund (WWF), will manage the ship which will also be a floating scientific lab for 60 scientists and 40 crew. The ship called Research Expedition Vessel (REV) is scheduled to be completed in 2020 has a number of ecological features that will minimize its footprint. This includes an energy recovery rudder system, medium speed engines, a direct drive diesel-electric propulsion system with battery package, an exhaust cleaning system, ballast water treatment system, low noise, WWF FSC certified woods, and lighting from LEDs.

Plastic Waste in Our Oceans: Problems and Solutions
Green Plastics Report
Infographic - Plastic and the 5 Ocean Gyres 
Video: The Perils of Plastic Waste
The Mass Extinction of Our Oceans May have Already Begun
Chemical Regulation Including Plastics that is Good for Business and the Environment
Plastics and the Greener Cell Phones
PepsiCo Canada's 100% Recycled EcoGreen Bottle Breakthrough
Ford's Flower Powered Green Plastic Replacement
Best Green Automotive Innovations Include Replacements for Plastics
Recycling is a Business Imperative
Water Scarcity and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Assessing the Value of Our Oceans

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