Plastic in the ocean and some inconvenient truths

  1. Simple answer to plastics problem is to limit use
  2. Determination and will to change is needed
  3. Much easier to reduce packaging in the West

Plastic is displayed on a beach and the word Trash is spelt out from golf balls. This is part of the Ocean Defenders Campaign in which the Greenpeace ship Esperanza MV sails to the Pacific Ocean, sometimes referred to as the North Pacific garbage patch.

WikiTribune community member and doctor of chemistry, Steven Abbott, puts forward some points about the plastics dilemma, which he concedes are not always palatable:

Our only choice for reducing the risk to the health of the ocean is to seriously reduce the amount of all plastics that enter the ocean each year.

Sea life has to cope with various man-made problems in its environment, such as excess runoff of sewage, industrial chemicals, farm waste and from the increasing acidity (lower pH) of the oceans caused by the man-made increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

To help nurse our oceans back to a healthier state we need to find the resources to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2), to minimise other runoff pollution and to cut the amount of plastic. (The solution to the CO2 issue is not discussed here.) Because resources are limited, it is helpful that, as discussed below, the main way to tackle the plastics problem automatically helps with many of the run-off problems.

One possible response to the problem is to hope for a large-scale replacement in a Life Without Plastic. But as in the example of replacement of plastic foam cups with paper ones, it is never that simple. This is because plastics themselves are neither good nor bad. They are simply one of many ingenious human inventions for creating useful structures such as bags, containers, ropes, clothes, nets or automobile parts. Used wisely, they make a positive contribution to the environment as they provide unparalleled practical strength-to-weight capabilities (minimum resource for maximum effect) and are stable, making them ideal for many long-term and re-usable applications.

Plastics are also bio-derived from oil beneath the ground and so avoid the need for precious agricultural land, water resources etcetera, required by many other bio-derived alternatives. The 300 million tons of plastic produced in 2015  compares to 35 billion barrels of oil per year which is ~ 5 billion tons. Even if all the plastic were derived directly from oil (which it is not , a lot of it is from gas) that is just 6% of oil usage (a separate source from 2008 estimates 4% ). Replacing plastics is far less important for reducing oil extraction than reducing oil consumption for transport and energy, and it does not help significantly with solving the ocean plastics issue.

The virtues of plastic

One problem with our attitude to plastics is that we do not regard them as a precious resource so do not think of the optimum way to deal with them to (a) reduce unnecessary use, (b) recycle them appropriately or (c) dispose of them rationally by recovering their thermal energy or putting them in proper landfill. Another problem is that their stability, which we positively require for many of their applications, becomes a liability if they are disposed of improperly.

To put it simply, the problem of plastics in the ocean is not one of “plastics” but of “improper disposal”. If we used less plastic then there would be less to dispose of. But focussing on reduction of plastic use will have little impact on the ocean in any meaningful timescale. Every bit of plastic that is produced is paid for by us, the consumers, who, in general, welcome what plastic can do for us. Egregious uses such as supermarket disposable bags or microplastic beads are relatively swiftly dealt with by government and consumer-driven action. A helpful list of governments that regulate disposable plastic bags also unhelpfully repeats the myth about “An island the size of Texas is forming in the Central Pacific Ocean……an island made entirely of discarded plastic debris.” Five thousand tons of subsurface microparticles basically invisible from the deck of a ship is not an “island”. Microbead bans led by governments and large consumer organisations will swiftly deal with a low-tonnage but totally unnecessary risk to ocean health.  But it is hard to find many quick wins when the alternatives to plastics are not compellingly better; if there were lots of them, we would all be using them.

So to reduce the amount in the ocean we need to either remove it from the ocean (discussed below) or reduce the amounts that go directly from humans to the ocean. Efforts to reduce the quantity and types of waste at sea by ships and fishing vessels are a quick win if we have the will to enforce higher standards. The International Marine Organisation has been pushing to create and enforce regulations  for over a decade. These things never proceed quickly, but the pathway to heavier restrictions, and the facilities to allow ships to dispose of waste properly, are clear. In Europe, the biggest contributor (after general tourist litter) to beach trash is from fishing, as Emma Priestland reports. Regulations plus infrastructure (including recycling of used nets and lines) are in place to reduce the problem. But this article is leading up to one big uncomfortable truth which tells us that there is one clear way to make a huge reduction in plastic in the ocean. The problem is that those of us in the richer world are unlikely to want to pay for the solution which has, largely, to be carried out in areas of the world with less wealth and which may not wish to spend limited resources on a problem that is rather less pressing than many immediate day-to-day needs.

Ten rivers bring 80 percent of the waste

Here is the key fact from the latest academic research which builds on previous research reaching similar conclusions. The Schmidt team at the UFZ in Leipzig, Germany show that of the estimated total of 1-2 million tons/year of plastic entering the ocean from the land, 80% of it flows down 10 rivers in Asia and Africa. WikiTribune consulting editor Jodie DeJonge reports seeing a massive ‘cleanup’ of plastic waste in Cambodia – after a festival, it was all just pushed into the nearest body of water.

This junk is all MMPW, mismanaged plastic waste. By the green principle that resources on the planet are limited, if we wish to significantly reduce the plastics in our oceans, our precious resources should be focussed on these 10 rivers. It is much easier to try to reduce packaging waste in the West, or shame producers into reducing the reckless use of plastics. While these are good things, they are a misallocation of resources if we really want to clean up the oceans.

‘Do those in the richer parts of the world … want to start paying for garbage cans, garbage trucks and recycling centres … in poorer parts of the world?’

There have been heroic proposals to remove plastics from the ocean, and the Ocean Cleanup project makes some grand claims about what it can achieve. This would require considerable resources and there is an interesting debate as to whether each $1 million spent removing plastic from, say, the Pacific Gyre, is more effective than that $1 million spent in stopping its entry to the ocean. Indeed, the Ocean Cleanup project believes that its techniques could be applied to the entry points from those large rivers, a perhaps more cost-effective and complementary task.

One cause of the problem would be a simple lack of alternative: no garbage collection and no rational handling of collected garbage. Do those in the richer parts of the world who care about the oceans want to start paying for garbage cans, garbage trucks and recycling centres and well-managed landfills in poorer parts of the world which have many other priorities? The answer should be “yes”. Because reducing garbage and increasing rational recycling has other benefits, such as improving health and safety, pride in one’s village or town, appreciation of the site of an unpolluted river. Helping to clean up the ocean helps civil society. The world would be a doubly-better place. Such clean-ups will also help with much of the other run-off problems from these rivers – human waste (rich in nutrients that can cause eutrophication) and chemical wastes (potentially more worrisome than many of the minor ingredients in plastics).

The UN agrees

At their Kenya conference in December 2017, the UN agreed that the flow has to stop. As BBC environmental reporter Roger Harrabin notes in his report on the agreement, the top five contributors to MMPW are: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, with 12 of the 15 million tonnes coming from the first two countries. Although the UN resolution is a good start, the question is how well the resolution will be implemented.

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