Plastics in the Ocean: Focus on the Problem Sharpens

by George Stubbs

It seems that, every day, we hear more news about how the improper disposal of plastic waste is resulting in the rapid accumulation of enormous amounts of the waste on beaches and in the oceans and posing a significant health burden to marine life. A new article–not from a non-governmental organization (NGO), but from the American Chemical Society’s house organ, Chemical & Engineering News–provides some staggering new numbers on the state of ocean pollution by plastic and other wastes. It also reviews some of the steps that the chemical industry, governments, and others are taking to stem the tide of plastic waste entering our oceans.

The article reports that about 500,000 volunteers for the Ocean Conservancy‘s  2017 International Coastal Cleanup initiative picked up a staggering array of items at several locations around the world. These items included the following: 1,578,834 plastic beverage bottles; 822,227 plastic bottle caps; 520,900 plastic grocery bags; 368,665 other plastic bags; 762,353 food wrappers; 419,380 plastic lids; 409,487 plastic straws; and more. (The most numerous class of waste was 1,863,868 cigarette butts, which present toxic problems of their own.)

The article identifies the leading sources of plastics in the ocean as countries in Southeast Asia: China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The article makes it less clear that the plastics entering the ocean from these nations is not entirely the result of generation by the people of those nations, but also by people from the developed world, which sends much of its waste to developing nations, where items thought to be valuable are extracted while the rest is dumped.

Admittedly, the waste management regimes of these countries are abysmal–certainly compared with those of the United States and Europe–and significant improvements are in order. The article reports that the plastics industry, recognizing that it has a problem, has pledged to work with governments and NGOs to develop improved methods for collecting, sorting, and recycling plastic waste.

It’s fair to say that the plastics industry wants to help in this manner because it wants to maintain our addiction to plastic products. The need to address the problem at the source, including by reducing our consumption of items like plastic grocery bags, is still critical.

But let’s at least give credit where credit is due. Dow Chemical, for example, has been sponsoring beach cleanups for years and now realizes that effort will not be enough, according to the article. “About seven years ago, Dow helped form the Trash Free Seas Alliance with Ocean Conservancy and other big corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola. More recently, the company pledged $2.8 million toward efforts to fight marine debris,” the article says.

“Dow is sponsoring a program to build roads in Indonesia and India made in part with flexible packaging that is otherwise difficult to recycle,” the article continues. “Engineers recently blended 3.5 metric tons of plastics into a 1.8-km road laid in West Java, Indonesia. Such roads sequester plastic that might otherwise be discarded and may last twice as long as a conventional road.”

As much as we may need to reduce our use of plastics, it is this kind of innovation and capital that will be needed to address the existing problem.

Governments are starting to turn their attention to the issue. On April 15, the British government announced that it will dedicate £61.4 million to establish the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, an initiative aimed at researching the problem of marine plastics from a social, economic, and scientific perspective. Earlier this year, the European Union announced a strategy to modernize plastics production and collection and to evaluate potential economic instruments to reduce plastics use, with an initial investment of €350 million.

Another recent article illustrates just what ocean waste is doing to marine life. On Thursday, April 11, the Washington Post published a story about a dead sperm whale found on the coast of Spain with 64 tons of trash in its digestive system.

A necropsy revealed that the 33-foot whale has “trash bags, polypropylene sacks, ropes, net segments and a drum, among other things, in its stomach and intestines,” according to the Post.  The cause of death, it was determined, was inflammation of the abdominal lining.

The article went on to say that at least 30 sperm whales have been found washed up on European beaches in recent years with significant amounts of trash in their digestive systems.



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