Marcus Eriksen received his Ph.D. in Science Education from University of Southern California in 2003, months before embarking on a 2000-mile, 5-month journey down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft. His experience on the river led to a career studying the ecological impacts of plastic marine pollution, which has included expeditions sailing 25,000 miles through all 5 subtropical gyres to discover new garbage patches of plastic pollution in the Southern Hemisphere.
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Carrots in a Ziploc
Grapes in a bag
Sandwich in saran wrap, with a "fresh daily" tag
Water bottle snuggled by an extra pair of socks
Chips to gnaw
Juice in a box
That's an average American kids lunch stuffed in a school bag, with enough plastic packaging to wallpaper the classroom. Once it comes to school lunch, we don't practice what we preach, so let's unpackage what we teach.
In war, natural disaster and poverty, water is the first relief to arrive alongside the security of life and limb. It is the gift that aids the weary traveler, sits at the table before a meal arrives. The lack of it kills before the lack of food does. It is not a commodity, as in the Bolivian Water Wars that fought the privatization of public wells, but rather it is a human right. So when the United Nations sanctions against Iraq in the 1990's stressed schools and hospitals to the point of disrepair and abandonment of their wells, human rights activists stepped in.
In 1999 a group of veterans, working through Veterans for Peace, founded the Iraq Water Project, with a mission to improve the health prospects of some part of the Iraqi population dependent upon water treatment facilities in desperate need of repair. Once a site is selected, usually a school or clinic, a 3-stage filtration unit, with reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light treatment, is set up to clean incoming water from a river, well or municipal source.
New water filter installed in alAskari shrine in Samarra.
To date, 160 units are in place mostly in schools and clinics across Iraq. We've installed one filter unit in an orphanage, a refugee camp, six prisons, including Abu Ghraib, which is now closed, and the alAskari shrine in Samarra, the one that alQaida bombed back in 2006.
Our partner, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, installed five units in Najaf schools, while Life for Relief and Development, an American Islamic NGO, installed two units in schools in the Diyala Province (east-central Iraq). For reasons of security we cannot name the group we work with in Nassiriya that installed four water treatment units in the new Nassiriya Heart Center and another four in local schools. These organizations are doing the lion's share of the work, taking responsibility for the installation, security and maintenance of the water filter units, providing citizens with a basic human right—access to clean water.
What's come of this investment are positive unintended consequences that have exceed our expectations, both social justice and conservation. By contributing to the relief of someone's suffering, a wonderful sense of humility and joy emerges, especially among the U.S. veterans participating in the project, which I can attest to personally. More importantly, lives are saved, dysentery among small children and water-borne illnesses have been reduced where the water filters are installed. Unexpectedly, the water filters serve not only the schools and clinics, but they become a community hub—a meeting place. The goodwill that emerges from Iraqi organizations managing their own recovery and the relationship that forms between Iraqis and American citizens is invaluable. There is reconciliation and atonement, which are hard to find.
A school in the Therthar village near Falluja.
Interestingly, giving water contributes to solving another problem: plastic pollution. Often when relief aid is sent after a natural disaster or during civil unrest, it comes packaged in stuff that becomes garbage. Water bottles by the millions are strewn across villages in Iraq, reflective of the years of poor waste management, garbage from war and relief aid. American bases established in Iraq employed "burn pits" to incinerate garbage. The same burn and bury strategy exists in villages across the country, sending acrid smoke into communities. Iraq's waste problem contributed to public outbreaks in cholera and dysentery, and roadside bombs found ample trash piles to be concealed within.
Iraqi children scavenging for recyclables in a dump near Najaf.Haidar Hamdan / AFP
One water filter can sustain daily drinking water for 1,000 residents for up to 3 months before filters need to be changed. The same volume would exceed half a million 1 liter plastic water bottles. By providing the "means to fish, rather than the fish itself," access to water becomes seemingly endless. But in today's political climate in Iraq, there are continued challenges to keep these water filter units operational.
Therefore, what continues today is maintenance and new installations of water filter units where they are needed. We recognize that past sanctions, war and poverty, exacerbate suffering, but sharing this gift is contributing to Iraq's recovery in sometimes unpredictable ways. It all begins with water.
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The 5 Gyres Institute co-authored this study which is the most comprehensive estimate of small plastics in the world's oceans. There were two other papers published earlier, one by Cozar (2014) and Eriksen (2014) using separate data sets.
The paper published last week in Environmental Research Letters, A Global Inventory of Small Floating Plastic Debris, uses three ocean models and every dataset published since the 1970s. With 10 authors contributing to it, it's the best so far. This new study suggests there are 15 to 51 trillion microplastic particles in the world's oceans, weighing somewhere between 93 and 236,000 metric tons. This is roughly seven times more than what we thought before.
Why is it more? It has more data and more recent data. It combines the efforts of three different ocean models, so the resolution is a lot better. There's also a lot more plastic in the ocean. Consider that in 2013 the plastics industry reported 300 million metric tons of new plastic produced in that year and a lot of it used for single-use throw away products sent to countries that have poor waste management. That combo is a recipe for trashed seas.
What is the end game for all of the plastic out there? Research shows that if we can turn off the tap, most of it will sink or wash ashore. The ocean is very dynamic and turbulent, constantly throwing things out, tearing it apart and sinking it. Humanity will have to live with this geologic layer on the ocean floor and beaches worldwide. Call it the Plasticene. Plastic is the index fossil that marks in geologic time that humans were here.
What can we do about it? We've got to turn off the tap using two big ideas.
1. Waste management around the world must improve and that means getting away from burning and burying our waste. Diverging waste to responsible management schemes, like compost facilities and recovery and recycling, must improve.
2. Product design is a mandatory part of the solution. The single use throwaway product concept is trashing our oceans. No waste management scheme is going to effectively clean up the proliferation of poorly designed products and packaging, like plastic bags, plastic straws, microbeads, water bottles, etc. Go to our microbeads campaign to see how we're holding companies accountable for putting millions of microplastic fragments in your facial cleansers and toothpastes.
These two solutions—waste management and product design—must happen simultaneously. We cannot expect countries to take out huge loans to pay to improve their waste management. It would be grossly unfair to create that economic burden, while the poorly designed products and packaging continue to trash our land and sea. We need the plastics industries that make and manufacture single-use throw away products to step up and design for a better future.
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"There's your product. It's all plastic bags," I said to Phil Rozenski, director of sustainability and marketing for Novalex, a plastic bag manufacturer. We were on stage debating the efficacy of plastic bags at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition annual conference in Charlotte, North Carolina in early October.
The object I was referring to was a 45-pound mass of tangled plastic bags found in the stomach of a dead camel in the desert of Dubai. The intention was to point out that in a circular economy products and packaging that escape the best recovery systems on the planet and cost taxpayers unfairly to clean up the mess, must be replaced with a design that is a benefit rather than a cost once you include the inconvenient externalities.
The object I was referring to was a 45-pound mass of tangled plastic bags found in the stomach of a dead camel in the desert of Dubai. Photo credit: Marcus Eriksen / 5 Gyres Institute
For half an hour we went back and forth about statistics that we each use to defend our positions, pointing to the other's faulty arguments, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I said, "You know, we could go back and forth all day with our convenient statistics, knowing we're just gonna dig in our heels on where we stand. Can we get beyond it all?"
My point was very simple. Plastic bags by design are really good at escaping our recovery systems and knowing now how dangerous plastics are to the environment, the logical next step is a design overhaul. Out with the old and in with the new. Rozenski nodded his head, then responded, "Would you be willing to support our How2Recycle program?" Two weeks later I was on a call with How2Recycle representatives.
How2Recycle was born out of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and their work to create a circular economy around plastic products and packaging in order to keep materials out of the dump or incinerator and instead keep them moving in a circular system from production and manufacturing to consumption and recovery.
Specifically, How2Recycle is a more informed labeling system that alerts the consumer to the recycleability of a product in the region where the customer lives. It directs people where to go to recycle, whether it's curbside collection or returning your materials to the store where it came from. It will be a vast improvement to clear the confusion around the chasing arrow triangle with number in the middle that makes everyone think that everything is recycled. That number is only a resin code and doesn't direct consumers where to go.
As we spoke with How2Recycle, we got into a discussion about irrecoverable products. The 5 Gyres Institute, working with a wide coalition of partners across the country, promotes a legislative ban on plastic microbeads in consumer products. In 2015, nine states have passed bans. The microbead ban eliminates the use of salt grain-sized particles of plastic in cosmetics and toothpaste that are designed to wash down the drain after use. It's a huge design flaw, completely irrecoverable from anywhere, therefore the only solution is to level the playing field through legislation and make room for companies to innovate a chemically benign alternative. In our throwaway society there are hundreds of applications of plastic that are irrecoverable, from gum wrappers to sachet packets, these are design failures that evade recovery and are not recycled in any practical, meaningful terms.
When I asked the How2Recycle representatives, "Where do you stand on products like this and others that you can't stick a recycle label on and if you did they would likely never get recycled anyway because of their elusive design? Like candy wrappers, plastic stir sticks, catchup packets, the list goes on and on." The answer was quite simple. They said, "We are material neutral." That means the How2Recycle program and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as a whole, do not weigh in on the material of choice a company uses. Instead, they aim to improve recyclability.
The contradiction here is that if you are not willing to stand against poorly conceived applications of plastic, then you're not addressing irrecoverable design, which is one of the tenants of a circular economy. You must make design choices that fit a system of efficient recovery or go for environmentally benign materials. You can't be for a circular economy and be materials neutral at the same time.
But what this contradiction unveils is a deeper set of philosophical assumptions that trump the recycling conversation. It is the ethos of doing business where any scent of regulation, as in microbead or plastic bag bans, is seen as heresy to the free market system. It's an unwavering belief that the market regulates itself and any constraints undermine innovation. The consensus among nonprofits working on waste issues is that for the sake of public good, harmful materials need to be removed from society if evidence shows they cause harm. This is the divide between industry and conservation that fuels the contradiction.
So then what is the solution? We look for common values. We all believe in being responsible citizens. And we all believe that doing things that hurt other people and causes suffering is wrong. When we accept the latest science about plastic ocean pollution and the danger it poses to the environment and marine food webs, it is clear that plastic in the environment becomes dangerous as it shreds into microplastics, absorbs toxins and has ecosystem-wide impacts. Plastic in the environment is doing harm and responsibility must be shared across sectors, including the courage to eliminate poorly designed products and packaging. The industries that make plastic products and packaging have enjoyed the economic benefit of deferring the cost and responsibilities for these externalities to municipalities and taxpayers.
We ask the members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to reject being "materials neutral" and take a stronger position of poor design choices. Science has proven the increased risks plastic pose to to the world. That justifies greater responsibility.
Watch my presentation here:
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Decades-old notions of mythical plastic islands and garbage patches invoked hundreds of cleanup schemes, like the Dutch organization "Ocean Cleanup Project's" (OCP) 60km-wide Net Array. While the media sensationalism in the early 2000's created plenty of public outcry, we still today battle misconceptions about the efficacy of ocean cleanup. The latest effort of OCP in the North Pacific and the subsequent public messaging warrant a reminder of the latest science on the issue and some constructive feedback moving forward.
Boyan Slat's Ocean Cleanup Project's “Net Array." Photo credit: Ocean Cleanup Project
While capture and reclamation of ocean plastics are attractively simple, and can be justified for recovering navigational hazards from lost fishing nets and line, our research has ultimately led us to believe that these types of concepts are not an effective approach to deal with plastic pollution. The 5 Gyres Institute with eight other colleagues conducted 24 ocean expeditions, over 100k ocean miles over seven years, producing the first global estimate of all plastics in all oceans. As a result 5 Gyres strongly advocates upstream design and policy solutions to clean up the oceans. Our history with Dutch ingenuity goes back several years.
You've got to love the Dutch and their marvelous technical approach to managing the ocean, with dams, docks and dredges making their life below sea-level warm and cozy. We met one such engineer, Dutch astronaut Wubbo Johannes Ockels, back in 2010 aboard the Stad Amsterdam studying plastic in the middle of the Indian Ocean Gyre. We listened to him describe giant man-made plastic trash islands in the shape of pinwheels that would spin with the aid of large wind-driven parachutes, catching more plastic and creating more real estate for people to live on.
Boyan Slat, founder of OCP, explained his alternate idea to us over dinner in Amsterdam two years later, as a 60 kilometer-wide net and boom system that passively captures drifting plastic. With wide public support he remains undeterred, despite wide criticism from the scientific community on mechanical design and ecological impacts. OCP has now completed a journey across the North Pacific with 30 vessels, called the Mega Expedition. We respect and admire innovation, but feel the need to offer some important suggestions.
Ecological Impacts Must Be Thoroughly Evaluated
After our meeting in Amsterdam with OCP, then again in Long Beach, we both participated in an online webinar to discuss the efficacy of the Net Array, with its 60km sweeping arms.
OCP's feasibility study acknowledges that neutrally buoyant marine life will sink and go under the net. When asked during the webinar about the passive floating organisms that do not swim, Slat was not aware of them. The potential for "bycatch" is too great to be ignored. Organisms like the beautiful purple janthina snail, rafting barnacles and numerous jellies, like the wind-driven velella velella, could amount to tens of millions of organisms captured over a short time.
Janthina snail with a common jellyfish called “By the Wind Sailor. Photo credit: Peter Parks / Norbert Wu Productions
Gooseneck barnacle on it's own raft.
The solution here is to produce a proper Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from an outside agency. Though we're thoroughly impressed with Slat's "big picture" thinking, he must conform to the ethical standards of any structural development of this magnitude. Knowing the full environmental impact of his project is currently missing from the OCP plan.
New Science Calls for New Directions
There are no islands of plastic, rather a smog of plastic that pervades the oceans. The last four years have produced more research publications on plastic marine pollution than the previous four decades. We understand the problem differently. Our study estimates 269K tons from 5.25 trillion particles globally, of which an astounding 92 percent were particles smaller than a grain of rice, or microplastic.
While an earlier global study of microplastics showed a 100x less on the sea surface than expected, supporting our understanding that the sea surface is not the final resting place. Researchers have now found microplastic and synthetic fibers frozen into ice cores, abundant on the sea floor and on every beach worldwide. Along the way it passes through the bodies of billions of organisms. We now understand that the ocean is moving our trash toward the subtropical gyres, shredding it into microplastic and then distributing it worldwide above and below the waves.
Ocean Recovery Efforts are “Too Late" in the Game to Capture Most of the Trash
The OCP's Net Array is "too late" in the pathway of trash. The science of plastic in the ocean shows us that the plastic entering the ocean is shredding rapidly into microplastic. It's mostly small stuff out in the gyres, except for large persistent fishing gear. OCP will mostly capture fishing gear, which is designed to persist at sea (the Mega Expedition has demonstrated this).
Nations are clamoring to stop the flow of trash in their rivers, based on a recent study by Jenna Jambeck identifying the individual contributions of plastic pollution from 192 countries. Jambeck estimates 4-12 million tons of plastic washing down the world's rivers. OCP's recovery innovations, if brought upstream, will capture more plastic before it degrades and impacts marine life, and more than likely at less cost than the Net Array.
What's out there now is leaving the gyres faster than we think. Drifting balls of tar give us some precedent to understand this. Tarballs were polluting beaches worldwide a lot more in the 1970s than today. As soon as international Maritime Law in the 1980's stopped oil tankers from washing out oil residues into the sea, we witnessed a rapid decline in tarballs on beaches. The plastic out there now will not be on the surface forever, with the likely endgame being the seafloor.
It is Worthwhile Going After the Macroplastic That's Out There Now?
Yes, the navigational hazards created by derelict fishing gear costs the maritime industry 100's of millions of dollars annually and warrant some action. At the same time, large plastics are rapidly becoming microplastics, with horrible repercussions for marine life.
From our global estimate research we found that only 8 percent of the plastic objects in the ocean are macroplastics larger than a grain of rice. Although that 8 percent represents most of the weight of trash in the ocean, more than 70 percent of it is derelict fishing gear (lost nets, line and buoys). It's useful to capture what's out there before it becomes microplastics or damages vessels.
At the 2015 G7 meeting in Germany, plastic marine pollution solutions were put on the table, including Fishing for Litter as the only viable ocean cleanup program, and described as “a useful last option in the hierarchy, but can only address certain types of marine litter."
When Slat and I had our webinar last summer I asked him at the very end, “Of the $2 million you've raised so far, would you consider funding a small incentivize recovery program, like Fishing for Litter in the North Pacific to see if fishermen could collect more trash at sea, more efficiently and cheaper, than you can?“
What we know is that similar incentivized recovery programs are proving to be successful in the North Sea and around Scotland. In Korea a $10 incentive per 100 liter bag of trash picked up by fishermen is working. But again, this is only a temporary solution.
We advocate solutions to derelict fishing gear that create Extended Producer Responsibility—EPR, like net tagging or lease programs for fishing fleets, where nets, buoys and lines are borrowed and returned, and heavy fines if lost. Slat followed the webinar with “No."
The Mega Expedition's Claims Need to Be Revisited
All data is useful data. Based on an idea suggested by Charles Moore last year when we all sat down in Long Beach, California, Slat arranged for 30 boats to sail from Hawaii back to the west coast of North America. OCP claims it has collected more data than all previous science work in the last 40 years and will provide the most updated analysis of plastic in the world's oceans. Both of these statements need clarification.
First, the last 40 years amounts to 11,000 samples. There is simply not enough time for 30 boats in three weeks to even come close to match this. Second, this is not a global analysis. It is a snapshot of the ocean in one place for, one month, in one year, and is heavily biased by the 2011 Japanese Tsunami.
OCP is surveying the one place in the ocean where oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko has predicted the debris field from the 2011 Japanese Tsunami now resides. OCP is measuring the effects of a catastrophic event—a plastic pollution anomaly.
When 5 Gyres and Algalita teamed up to sail from Tokyo to Hawaii in 2012, we studied the sub-surface debris field of tsunami debris, and found plenty of it. Thanks to modeling work done by the IPRC, we knew very well that by 2015-2016 all of what we saw would be in the accumulation zone between Hawaii and California, where the Mega Expedition recently surveyed.
The one significant scientific contribution that OCP can make is to compare the 2015 Mega Expedition snapshot data to all previous data in the same region to see how early levels of plastic marine pollution compare to the catastrophic event that was just recently sampled.
Constructive Suggestions for Ocean Cleanup Project:
1. Consider moving the Net Array upstream to capture trash before it fragments. Many countries around the world are deploying structures of all kinds to catch trash downstream, from nets to waterwheels, with the last stop at river mouths. OCP could contribute their engineering expertise to the growing industry designing systems to tackle waste upstream.
2. OCP must produce a thorough environmental impact statement. There is the potential for the Net Array to capture significant bycatch, therefore a thorough environmental impact statement from an outside agency is necessary.
3. Examine alternatives. It would be a cost effective exercise to support an incentivized program for fisherman to recover plastic pollution in the region where OCP plans to deploy the Net Array. It may prove to do a better job. It is likely that Hawaiian fisherman would gladly collect derelict fishing gear if given $1 euro/kilo, which is a fraction of OCP's $4.5 euro/kilo anticipated cost/benefit of the net. It's worth a try. Also, consider supporting a net lease program with a commercial fishing fleet. Because derelict fishing gear is the most abundant and most damaging to marine life and ocean navigation, this upstream solution is long-term and only beginning to be implemented.
4. Support design change and EPR. Consider supporting other upstream solutions, like EPR and product design, in order to reduce the trash load heading downriver. One of our Dutch heroes are the Plastic Soup Foundation, which were the first to campaign for the removal of plastic microbeads from consumer products.
We want to encourage innovation from people like Boyan Slat, but with the guidance of good, open-minded, pragmatic science. What we know about the problem has changed drastically since OCP first proposed the Net Array. We believe that the public will support a shift in priorities if presented well and reflects wide scientific agreement and collaboration. Willingness to change course with new information is admirable, and I think OCP's funders will appreciate that.
In the meantime, we welcome a dialogue, even another public webinar like the one we had last year to address these concerns.
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The 5 Gyres Institute sailed 3,000 miles in June—from Miami to the Bahamas to Bermuda and ending in New York City—sampling the sea surface along the entire voyage for plastic pollution. Sadly, our research once again demonstrates how prolific and widespread plastic is in our oceans. We found microplastics, pieces smaller than a grain of rice, dominating each of the 38 samples taken during the three week-expedition through the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, a series of clockwise rotating currents between the U.S. and Europe.
What we found in our samples, confirms our understanding that plastics quickly shred in the open sea due to UV sunlight. We have dubbed this abundance of fragments, which are being consumed by sea life as well as slowly settling to the seafloor, as plastic smog. This plastic smog that overwhelmingly pollutes our oceans has gone global, emanating from our densely populated coastlines.
Consider the smog that hovers in the air above our major cities. It is composed of fine particles of carbon swirled by atmospheric currents and sometimes adrift for hundreds of miles before settling to the ground. The plastic smog in our oceans is a particulate of hydrocarbons swirled by ocean currents and drifting for thousands of miles before possibly settling to the seafloor. If you can imagine a plastic smog in our oceans, then you can imagine our cities are the horizontal smokestacks pumping plastic into the ocean.
On June 23, the 5-Gyres’ ship the Mystic, a 172 foot three-masted schooner, sailed into the New York Harbor. Our surface nets dragged up and down the Hudson River and the bay, and we were shocked by what we found.
Our last sample collected south of Manhattan was the most polluted of them all, with nearly 500 bits of plastic filling our tiny net in just one hour. New York City is pumping millions of particles of plastic into the Atlantic Ocean every day. The objects found included cigar tips, tampon applicators, condoms, straws, fragments of plastic bags, preproduction plastic pellets and hundreds of unidentifiable plastic fragments. New York City is feeding the plastic smog.
The situation may seem hopeless, but there is tremendous ambition in the resilience of environmental organizations throughout the state of New York that are working to reduce plastic waste entering New York waterways. More than 40 organizations from every corner of the state are working together to stem the tide of plastic into New York’s waters.
This coalition worked tirelessly throughout the 2015 New York state legislative session to pass a ban on plastic microbeads in personal care products. Tiny plastic microbeads in products such as facial scrubs and toothpastes (yes, some toothpastes leave plastic particles between your teeth and in our gums) are designed to be washed down the drain, where they often escape sewage treatment and pollute our waters. While the bill passed the Assembly and enjoyed overwhelming support in the Senate, it fell victim to Albany dysfunction, and did not pass into law this year. Fortunately, our neighbors in Connecticut successfully passed a ban on microbeads this year and we are poised to win the fight in New York next year.
Therefore, it is essential that residents of New York remain vigilant and aware of our plastic consumption. The reduction of plastic bags, foamed polystyrene and microbeads in personal care products will collectively have a meaningful and positive effect on the quality of the waters surrounding New York and beyond. Individual, voluntary efforts are a great start. However, legislation is undeniably needed to solve our plastic problem once and for all. All of us, including the industries that make plastic products, are responsible for the problem, and through smart and fair legislation we can be the solution.
Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D. director of research at The 5 Gyres Institute; Sandra Meola, communications and outreach at NY/NJ Baykeeper; Brian Smith, associate executive director at Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Sherri A. Mason, Ph.D. professor of chemistry. at SUNY Fredonia; Reece Paecheo at Surfrider, New York City; and David T. Conover, education director at Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc.
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The idea that there are “patches” of trash in the oceans is a myth created 15 years ago that should be abandoned in favor of “plastic smog,” like massive clouds of microplastics that emanate out of the five subtropical gyres. My recent publication in the journal Plos One, estimates 269,000 tons of plastic from 5.25 trillion particles, but more alarming than that is it’s mostly microplastic (>92 percent in our study) and most of the plastic in the ocean is likely not on the sea surface.
If you follow the life of plastic in the oceans, as we have done for 50,000 miles since 2009, you find the large items leaving coastlines in droves, then it rapidly shreds as it migrates toward the calmer waters of the subtropical gyres where sunlight, waves and nibbling fish rip it to micro-size particles smaller than a grain of rice. Microplastic then flow through the bodies of billions of organisms, making their way out of the gyres to deeper currents, and ultimately the seafloor. That’s the end-life of plastic.
Visualize the problem as “plastic smog” much like the way you can look up and visualize clouds of air pollution over cities. It’s very similar. We solved the air pollution problem by stopping the source with better emission controls on cars and power plants. There were people that suggested sucking air pollution out of the sky, but because people could look up and see the problem they understood that only stopping the source would work. The exact same logic applies to microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Because there are only a handful of scientists that understand ocean plastic pollution, and the public largely relies on the media for information, there’s an unusual amount of attention given to ideas to suck up plastic from the sea.
What 5.25 trillion particles tells us is that emission controls are the only viable solution. And that’s where we need your help. By supporting our microbead ban, which is one of many campaigns to phase out bad plastic design, you will make a long-lasting impact on fixing the problem.
Watch here as I provide an overview of our recent study:
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We confirmed our expectation that without good waste management and a glut of poorly designed plastic products and packaging, the ocean will get trashed. An endless trail of large pieces of litter were abundant on the sea surface everywhere we looked. Our trawls skimmed the sea surface, catching plastic bottles and bags. If we're going to solve this, three things must happen:
1. Enforce litter laws
2. Government must improve waste management
3. Industry must make smarter products that have a post-consumer value. This is the only thing that will assure their recovery.
Watch this video to learn more.
The revolution of plastic in the fishing industry has fed billions, but left a paucity of life in the oceans and more suffering than we understand. A lost nylon fishing net or tangled mass of hook and line does not stop fishing, the results are horrifying and solutions hard won.
The big things living in the ocean usually sink when they die, which is why any estimate of ecological impacts, from propeller scars to entanglement in fishing nets, are nearly impossible. They always underestimate the numbers of true deaths and dismemberment. The ones that are still alive near the surface are the messengers. A recent report from scientists studying loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) near the Azores, report gruesome amputations from entanglement and intestinal lesions and bleeding from hooks making their way through their bodies.
So what can fix this?
Lost fishing gear, called ghost nets, are more costly than you might think. Scientist studying the economics of subsidizing recovery of lost nets in Puget Sound reported that the fish and crabs that are caught and die in lost traps and nets was worth more than 12 times the cost of recovery programs. Incentivizing recovery works, but who will pay for it? In Chesapeake Bay researchers have had success with a program to equip crabbers with side-scanning sonar and a grapple hook to snare the hundreds of lost traps that litter the bay. The program works, thanks to taxpayer funds through the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.
But in the ocean, where marine mammals and reptiles interact with thousands of tons of plastic waste in international waters, the economic incentives are not there. Voluntary programs for fishermen to bring garbage back from the sea, or report lost gear, are not impactful on a large scale. What is needed are economic incentives, which will largely need to be subsidized by the industries producing the gear in the first place, to create a reward for the return of derelict gear.
A model similar to the plastic bottle redemption program in California would work, where a price-per-pound incentive is responsible for a 72 percent recovery rate for soda bottles. A dollar a pound for lost gear would give fishermen, who are the most likely people to see derelict fishing gear, the incentive to bring it back to land. This kind of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is working for other products in other industries across the globe.
With EPR we will see successful removal of ghost nets and traps. Without EPR, we can expect to see more suffering and dwindling numbers of megafauna in our oceans.
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Millions of industrial plastic pellets pollute the sands beneath our feet, but you can’t see them unless you look closely, and no beach cleanup will ever make it better.
“We picked up all the bags and bottles already,” said one young volunteer that collected trash on Whiskey Island at Wendy Park's Sandy Beach, along the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland as part of the Burning River Fest. I was sitting next to her on the ground sifting through leaf litter picking up the little pieces. I yelled, “I’ll give a dollar to the first person to find a pellet!” Within a few minutes a dozen volunteers were on their hand and knees picking up thousands of them. The amount of pellets on this beach is equivalent to a least one plastic bottle every three feet.
Industries that make or use preproduction plastic pellets contribute to the problem of uncontrolled pellet loss. Preproduction plastic is the raw plastic resin materials that are molded into finished plastic products, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. Preproduction plastics are often produced in a resin pellet format, occasionally termed as “nurdles.” These small, 1- to 5- mm diameter pieces are produced in various shapes, colors and plastic types. Preproduction plastics can be produced in powder, granule and flake form.
As the Research Director at the 5 Gyres Institute, I’ve collected pellets on dozens of beaches around the world to support the work of the International Pellet Watch in Tokyo. If you send IPW a hundred pellets, they will tell you what chemicals are absorb into them from the environment. When pellets from this beach were sent to them three years ago, we were appalled to find that the concentrations of DDT on these pellets were the highest in the U.S.
Why does this matter? We know than marine organisms mistake pellets for food. In 2008, I caught a Rainbow Runner with 17 particles of plastic in its gut, including a little black pellet. We also know that changes in PH, temperature and surfactants in the stomachs of marine organisms can desorb chemicals from microplastics. By a few logical steps, we are eating our own trash.
What can be done? More states can pass legislation like California's AB 258, which put teeth in the enforcement of best management practices for plastic pellet producers. This bill mandates that producers sweep their factory floors, monitor screens in neighborhood storm drains and build barriers around the site where they unload truck and trains filled with pellets. It worked in California. It can work around the world. It can work here on Sandy Beach in Cleveland.
Here’s what you can do. Look for pellets on your shoreline. Send 100 of them to IPW. You can learn how to document pellets per square meter by clicking here. Once you know the abundance of pellets and their toxicity, you can then organize locally to engage companies and policymakers to take responsibility. It’s going from science to solutions to make a slam dunk argument for the good of people and the environment.
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