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.
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Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
<div id="dadb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2ad8cb566c9b4b6d2df2693669f6f9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1357796504740761602" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA</div> — USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)<a href="https://twitter.com/USFWSPacific/statuses/1357796504740761602">1612558888.0</a></blockquote></div>
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Comparing rime ice and glaze ice shows how each changes the texture of the blade. Gao, Liu and Hu, 2021, CC BY-ND
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While traditional investment in the ocean technology sector has been tentative, growth in Israeli maritime innovations has been exponential in the last few years, and environmental concern has come to the forefront.
theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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