Quantcast

Plastic Pollution = Cancer of Our Oceans: What Is the Cure?

By now, many people know that the ocean is filled with plastic debris.

A recent study estimates that the amount of plastic waste that washes off land into the ocean each year is approximately 8 million metric tons. Jenna Jambeck, the study’s lead author, helps us visualize the magnitude by comparing it to finding five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the 192 countries included in the study.

As someone who lives in a highly urbanized coastal city in California, this estimate didn’t shock me. I grew up watching loads of plastic trash spew from river outlets into our ocean. Our beaches are covered with things like plastic bottles, bags, wrappers and straws—all mostly single-use “disposable” items.

For years, I’ve watched polluted water flow beneath the bridge at the end of the San Gabriel River, a channel that drains a 713 square mile watershed in Southern California. This bridge is special … it’s where my fascination with plastic waste began—it’s where our plastic trash becomes plastic marine debris.

As Algalita’s education director, it’s my job to help people wrap their heads around the complexities of this issue. Many times, it’s the simple questions that require the most in-depth responses. For example: “Why can’t we clean up the trash in the ocean?”

I won’t say extracting plastic debris from our ocean is impossible; however, I will say most plastic pollution researchers agree that its output is not worth its input. They believe our cleanup efforts are best focused on land and in our rivers. Here’s why:

The ocean is imperious and is constantly changing.

The ocean is complex, and is influenced by an endless list of processes. It’s three-dimensional, interconnected, and unpredictable. It’s massive, dynamic, and acts as one giant imperious force. The fact that the ocean is ever-changing makes it impossible to fully understand.

Our experience of the ocean is entirely defined by our interactions with it. Most researchers who have studied plastic marine debris will tell you that, logistically, working in the open ocean is arduous and unpredictable. Some days you are completely powerless against its will.

Waste management ends at the end of the river.

Humans lose the ability to manage plastic trash once it enters the ocean and becomes marine debris. Ocean cleanup is not a form of waste management. It is simply an attempt to extract plastic debris from our complex ocean.

There are different types of plastic marine debris.

Our ocean is filled with all sorts of plastic—from fully intact items like bottles and toothbrushes to plastic fragments, filaments, pellets, film and resin. Recently, a team of researchers from six countries calculated that an astounding 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 269,000 tons can be found floating in the global ocean. Most of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are small, between just 1mm and 4.75mm in size.

Each piece of debris is unique, with its own shape, size, and chemical composition. Its structure and buoyancy change as communities of organisms adhere to its surface. Some pieces have been completely transformed into artificial habitats that harbor dozens of species.

Some plastics, like fishing nets, line and film have a tendency to snag and accumulate other pieces of debris. Imagine a kind of snowball effect as tangled debris rolls around in the ocean’s currents. These composite mixtures come in all shapes and sizes, from massive ghost nets to tiny clusters of monofilament fibers invisible to the naked eye.

The heterogeneous nature of the debris poses critical challenges that, if not addressed properly, can have significant negative consequences and potentially jeopardize the health of the ocean.

As you can imagine, ocean cleanup is a controversial issue. Let me try to simplify things—think of ocean plastic pollution as a type of cancer. The cure for ocean plastic pollution is eliminating disposable plastics all together. I’ll be the first to admit that this is never going to happen. So let’s see what prevention and treatment look like.

Redesigning plastic products to be valuable and sustainable is our biggest leap toward prevention. When designed in cradle-to-cradle systems, plastic products have a much better chance of being recovered and recycled. Also, better product design may ease many of the challenges plastic recyclers face. Waste reduction also falls into the prevention category as it helps scale down the amount of waste to be managed.

Waste management can be viewed as treatment for the disease. This is how we keep things under control.

Ocean cleanup is comparable to invasive surgery—and that’s why it’s so controversial.

Most plastic pollution researchers agree that ocean cleanup is a radical approach to the issue. Many will even denounce it as impractical and overly idealistic. However, this engineering challenge should not be ignored completely … just as surgery for a cancer patient is sometimes our last-ditch effort.

Surgery is most successful when done by a specialist with a great deal of experience in the particular procedure. The problem is, ocean plastic pollution is a relatively new disease and therefore, there are no specialists in this type of “procedure”—there are no textbooks, courses or degrees related to ocean cleanup. Experience starts now.

An understanding of the ocean and this “disease” is best gained through experience. If we are to attempt ocean cleanup, our best approach is to connect the proponents of clean-up schemes with people who understand the complexities of the disease—experienced plastic pollution researchers.  And if these plastic pollution experts denounce certain methods of cleanup, we should pay close attention to what they’re saying. Those who propose ocean clean up schemes should embrace the critiques of these individuals, as there is immeasurable value in their scrutiny.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Microbeads: A Sign of Our Plastic Consumer Madness

Adidas Wants to Turn Ocean Plastic Into Sportswear

UN Scientists Call for Action on Marine Microplastics as New York Assembly Passes Microbeads Ban

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
African elephant. USFWS

Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration Over New Elephant and Lion Trophy Policies, Still in Effect Despite Trump's Tweets

The Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Trump administration Monday for allowing U.S. hunters to import elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe. The lawsuit aims to protect animals and resolve confusion created by the administration's contradictory announcements in recent days.

The suit comes days after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abruptly reversed an Obama-era ban on elephant trophy imports based on catastrophic elephant population declines. Fish and Wildlife also recently greenlighted lion trophy imports from Zimbabwe, despite the controversial killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe in 2015.

Keep reading... Show less
Below the Mackinac bridge runs Enbridge Line 5, transporting 23 Million gallons of oil and liquid gas every day. Conor Mihell

Four Questions About the New Line 5 Pipeline Report

By Beth Wallace

In June, the state of Michigan released a draft report on alternatives to Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline, which pumps up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids (NGLs) per day along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. The draft report, written by Dynamic Risk, was met with heavy criticism from all sides, and the National Wildlife Federation joined with many others to suggest numerous and substantive changes. On Nov. 20, the final alternatives report was released to the public. As per an agreement with the state to obtain funding for the report, Enbridge has had five days to review this report before it is released publicly.

Keep reading... Show less
USDA

Thanksgiving Dinner Is Cheapest in Years, But Are Family Farms Paying the Price?

By Sarah Reinhardt

Last week, the Farm Bureau released the results of its annual price survey on the cost of a typical Thanksgiving dinner. The grand total for a "feast" for 10 people, according to this year's shoppers? About 50 dollars ($49.87, if you want to be exact). That includes a 16-pound turkey at $1.40 per pound, and a good number of your favorite sides: stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and coffee and milk.

After adjusting for inflation, the Farm Bureau concluded that the cost of Thanksgiving dinner was at its lowest level since 2013. Let's talk about what that means for farmers, and for all of us.

Keep reading... Show less

Would More People Ride the Bus if It Looked and Felt Like a Train?

By Jeff Turrentine

It moves through city thoroughfares, towering above automobile traffic. It makes frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers. It has places to sit, places to stand, and—yes—rubber-tired wheels that go 'round and 'round, all through the town.

But don't call it a bus. It's a "trackless electric train."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Electric Car Sales Surge 63% Globally

Electric vehicles (EVs) continue to gain momentum on the world market.

Global sales of electric and hybrid cars are 63 percent higher than the same quarter last year, and up 23 percent from the second quarter, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) report.

Keep reading... Show less
Harvesting sugarcane in Brazil. Jonathan Wilkins / CC BY-SA

Jet Fuel From Sugarcane? It’s No Flight of Fancy

By Deepak Kumar, Stephen P. Long and Vijay Singh

The aviation industry produces two percent of global human-induced carbon dioxide emissions. This share may seem relatively small—for perspective, electricity generation and home heating account for more than 40 percent—but aviation is one of the world's fastest-growing greenhouse gas sources. Demand for air travel is projected to double in the next 20 years.

Airlines are under pressure to reduce their carbon emissions, and are highly vulnerable to global oil price fluctuations. These challenges have spurred strong interest in biomass-derived jet fuels. Bio-jet fuel can be produced from various plant materials, including oil crops, sugar crops, starchy plants and lignocellulosic biomass, through various chemical and biological routes. However, the technologies to convert oil to jet fuel are at a more advanced stage of development and yield higher energy efficiency than other sources.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Renewable Energy
"Eólica" or wind power plant in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. ICE Group / Twitter

Costa Rica Runs Entirely on Renewable Energy for 300 Days

Costa Rica has charted another clean energy accolade. So far this year, the Central American country has run on 300 days of 100 percent power generation from renewable energy sources, according to the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE), which cited figures from the National Center for Energy Control.

With six weeks left of 2017 to go, Costa Rica could easily surpass 300 days.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
iStock

Starbucks Falls Short on Environmental Commitments

By Davis Harper

Since the early 1970s, Starbucks has held a special place in cupholders. Widespread infatuation with the company's caffeinated beverages has earned the coffee giant a storefront on almost every corner. With outposts in 75 countries and a whopping 13.3 million people enrolled in its loyalty rewards program, Starbucks has scorched nearly all of its closest competitors among major U.S. food brands (most of which aren't even coffee chains) in total market value.

With such reach and power comes tremendous responsibility. Starbucks touts its own corporate responsibility—claiming to be climate-change-aware and cognizant of its environmental cup-print—but how many latte-sippers know that their paper cup actually isn't recyclable and that it'll likely end up in a landfill? Might the knowledge that Starbucks's meat supply is pumped with antibiotics alter the market's appetite for the popular chicken and double-smoked bacon sandwich? Although the company prides itself on environmental awareness and progress toward sustainable products, multiple reports point to the mega-corporation's failure to live up to its own purported standards.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!