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Solution to Ocean’s Plastic Waste Problem ‘Starts With Product Design’

Oceans
Accumulated garbage on a beach on Msasani Bay in Tanzania. Loranchet / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

By John C. Cannon

Solving the problem of the growing amount of plastic in the ocean requires rethinking how we use and design plastic products, a group of scientists said at the European Open Science Forum (ESOF18) on July 10.

To address the issue, we need to "properly consider the product's life and its end of life right from the beginning, from the design stage," said Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth in the UK.


Ocean cleanups, banning unnecessary single-use products, biodegradation, even recycling—none of these solutions alone will be enough to crack the problem, the researchers concluded. Interest has surged in tackling the problem of plastic in the ocean recently, but researchers have been studying the issue for years.

Microplastic particles inside a perch larva Oona M. Lönnstedt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Thompson said that early on in his training in marine biology, he didn't expect that "rubbish" would be a central focus of his work. But in his explorations of the world's oceans, he found trash, especially plastics, everywhere, and in every size.

"It's very difficult to go anywhere in the world actually in a marine environment without finding items of rubbish," Thompson said. He and his team published an early paper on microplastics in 2004 documenting bits of plastic they found in sand that were "smaller than the diameter of a human hair."

Since then, the research community has published hundreds of papers cataloging the potential harm that castaway garbage can pose to some 700 species of marine life, from entanglement in "ghost nets" to infiltrating the diets of zooplankton. But plastics are also valuable for applications such as healthcare, food storage and manufacturing.

"They bring many benefits that could reduce our human footprint on the planet," he said.

The problem is that much of the plastic generated every year is produced with "an outdated and inefficient business model," Thompson said, one that isn't aimed at the circular use of plastics.

Plastic that washed ashore after a storm in California Kevin Krejci / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

"Plastic in the sea is a symptom of a much wider problem about the rapid linear use of resource to waste," Thompson said.

Even though it's where so much of the plastic ends up, "[we] all agree on the fact that the solution is not in the ocean," said Jean-François Ghiglione, a microbiologist at the Oceanographic Observatory in Banyuls, France.

Some of the proposed ideas have struck the researchers as wrong-headed. Collection initiatives using nets to collect trash from the sea are "a real concern," said Alexandra Ter Halle, a chemist at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France. A project called Ocean Cleanup is planning to use "screens" attached to floating pipes up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to skim plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

"There is no way to separate the [marine] life from the plastic," Ter Halle said. "Fishermen need authorization to go fishing at sea. But those cleaning initiatives, they don't need any authorization to put those big nets at sea."

Ter Halle led the 7th Continent expedition in the North Atlantic in 2015. From the team's surveys, she and her colleagues documented, for the first time, the presence of microscopic "nano-plastic" particles in the ocean. Their data is yet more evidence of how pervasive plastics are in the environment.

Ghiglione has been investigating bacteria that could degrade plastic. For some, it seems to be a favorite food source.

"They really love plastic," he said.

But are they plowing through the tons of rubbish in the ocean? "That's not the case," he said.

Thompson returned to the idea that we need to think about the source of all this trash. Indeed, he said, getting rid of non-essential packaging and materials needs to happen. For example, on July 9, Starbucks announced it would stop providing plastic straws in its stores by 2020.

"There are some plastics products that we didn't need in the first place," Thompson said. Going a step further than voluntary corporate commitments, he added, "I think we could have legislation to prohibit their use."

Plastic microfibers under a microscope M.Danny25 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

But, he said, policy and legal changes aren't possible for every type and use of plastic. And that proliferation of different forms of plastic, in many cases making their disposal too complex for the average person, is part of the problem, he said.

We could be recycling a lot more plastic than we currently are, he said. Only about 10 percent of what's produced gets cycled back into new products.

"Why is it so low?" Thompson said.

Again, it goes back to the forethought that must go into plastics before they're produced, he said: "If they're not being designed so that they can be recycled, we're wasting our time."

Editor's note: John Cannon received a fellowship from Nature Research to attend ESOF18. Nature Research had no editorial control over the selection of this story or its content.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East.

Republished with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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