The American Chemistry Council and 57 other plastics associations around the world recently reported on the progress they've made on the Global Declaration of the Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter. The Declaration was originally announced in March 2011 at the 5th International Marine Debris Conference.
The progress report lists more than 140 education, research, policy, best-practices, recycling/recovery, and pellet containment projects to prevent marine litter, and their current status. The projects include efforts in education, global research, eco-efficient waste management, and litter prevention. By far the majority consists of education, so many of these are still ongoing. Several policy and research projects have been completed, such as an Australian study on the environmental impact of various degradable plastics, and a Canadian study on agricultural plastics recovery.
Although it might not be immediately obvious what agricultural plastics research has to do with plastic pollution in the oceans, as much as 80 percent of marine litter comes from land-based sources. About 70 percent of overall litter ends up on the ocean floor, and about 30 percent remains in suspension or floats.
The report also provides details on the Global Declaration itself, and the six commitments made under it by the plastics associations. The six commitments are areas of engagement that target sustainable solutions. They are focused on public-private partnerships to prevent marine litter, research, public policy, sharing best-practices, plastics recycling/recovery, and plastic pellet containment. After coming up with this list, declaration signatories identified specific actions to fulfill the declaration, and agreed to track and report their progress on those actions.
According to the report, the declaration was "a public commitment by a global industry to work with partners to tackle a global problem: plastics in the marine environment." It provides case studies of specific projects, and ideas about using the results of those projects to prevent marine litter in other regions of the world. The report can be accessed from a link in the press release on this page.
We've reported on The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP), which has as its primary goal the cleaning up of plastic from the Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The non-profit organization aims to locate, remove, and recycle plastic marine debris, in part by helping to develop new technologies. For example, TCOP is working with Japan-based plastic-to-fuel system maker Blest and E-N-ergy, a Blest distributor, to develop a shipboard plastic-to-fuel conversion system that can transform plastic trash into diesel fuel. By fueling TCOP's collection vessels, the system could eliminate the need for those vessels to return to shore for disposing of the waste, and also keep that trash out of landfills.
According to the progress report, many plastics manufacturers and processors have been working to reduce plastic marine litter for a few decades. It's heartening to know that the producers of plastics, as well as some of their consumers, are trying to help mitigate the damage these materials have caused in the world's oceans.
Dave, I agree about defining the problem. That's one of the first and most basic research principles I learned, along with how to evaluate sources. Regarding the amount of plastic pollution in coastal areas, it's not nearly as bad on the west coast of North America as it is on the other side of the Pacific, or in other areas of the world. And those gyres, of course, are nowhere near the coasts but out in remote areas of the ocean rarely visited by humans. That said, the amount of trash, plastic and non-plastic, picked up on Santa Cruz, California beaches and creeks each year by local volunteers is staggering.
This part is also worthy of note since you mentioned "patch visibility":
The hyperbole about plastic patches saturating the media rankles White, who says such exaggeration can drive a wedge between the public and the scientific community. One recent claim that the garbage patch is as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge is tall is completely unfounded, she said.
"Most plastics either sink or float," White pointed out. "Plastic isn't likely to be evenly distributed through the top 100 feet of the water column."
White says there is growing interest in removing plastic from the ocean, but such efforts will be costly, inefficient, and may have unforeseen consequences. It would be difficult, for example, to "corral" and remove plastic particles from ocean waters without inadvertently removing phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small surface-dwelling aquatic creatures.
Among other findings, which White believes should be part of the public dialogue on ocean trash:
Calculations show that the amount of energy it would take to remove plastics from the ocean is roughly 250 times the mass of the plastic itself.
I really do think it would be worth asking her to provide additional information. She seems to have a very measured response and recognizes that there is a serious issue -- but that it needs to be quantified correctly.
It is a good question you ask. Maybe it would be worthwhile to ask Dr White to write a short article on the exact nature of the problem. ( http://ceoas.oregonstate.edu/profile/white/ ) I am sure she would love some consulting time with plastics manufacturers and would be a valuable resource to them. ;-)
I thought the article worth noting on the basis that many times I have been asked to solve a problem -- when "the problem" is actually quite a different beast than described.
As someone who ran a small ocean going (coastal) vessel on the west coast for a few years I never observed the amount of pollution that I heard claimed anywhere -- scientifc or media publications. There are a few well know exceptions -- like Pirates Cove on Galiano Island (a popular destination for weekend boaters) -- which many claim has a "glass bottom" from remains of old bottles.
If you don't understand the nature of the problem -- it's difficult to provide a solution of any efficacy.
Thanks for the info on the Oregon study. Yes, the mass media tends to exaggerate things, such as claiming there's more plastic than plankton. But we're not the mass media, and we were reporting what the actual plastics makers and processors are doing.
Regarding extent, that's been a tough one to estimate. One of the biggest problems in studying the prevalence of ocean plastic is the fact that most of a patch is not visible above the surface of the water: most of it is submerged. Aerial surveys are therefore not useful, or only about as useful as estimating the size of the proverbial iceberg by the part that sticks out of the water. So it would be interesting to know how the Oregon researchers "observed" or "looked at" the patches to reach these conclusions.
It is worth reading the article but the first few paragraphs give the gist:
CORVALLIS, Ore. – There is a lot of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean, but claims that the "Great Garbage Patch" between California and Japan is twice the size of Texas are grossly exaggerated, according to an analysis by an Oregon State University scientist.
Further claims that the oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, and that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950s are equally misleading, pointed out Angelicque "Angel" White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State.
"There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists," White said. "We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don't need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic."
White has pored over published literature and participated in one of the few expeditions solely aimed at understanding the abundance of plastic debris and the associated impact of plastic on microbial communities. That expedition was part of research funded by the National Science Foundation through C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education.
The studies have shown is that if you look at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically "cohesive" plastic patch is actually less than 1 percent of the geographic size of Texas.
"The amount of plastic out there isn't trivial," White said. "But using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size."
Hopefully people here are more interested in facts than hype.
jonnk, I agree that the proof is in the pudding. But there's more than just a recipe here. As the article mentions, and the report details, several cleanup projects have already occurred and many others are in progress or planned.
I think the first time I really got the magnitude of the problem wasn't after finding out about the gyres. That was bad enough, but much of what's there isn't visible since it's collecting sub-surface. But what got me was seeing a scene in a movie that showed vast amounts of plastic waste collecting around the mouth of a river in India, before eventually getting washed out to sea. This, of course, is one of the sources of ocean waste mentioned in the report: runoff through streams. I instantly thought of how many such streams there are in the now mostly industrialized world and realized the amount of plastic collecting in all of them was staggering.
You're right Ann, I think there are about five known was...was just speaking to my anti-plastic advocate friend yesterday and she informed me about this. Really awful to think about, and anything that can be done to clean up this mess is not just welcome, it is sorely needed and long overdue!
Elizabeth, thanks for the positive support. I agree, the industry itself is best positioned to deal with many of the problems caused by its products. It hasn't always done so, especially with cancer-causing chemistries, but when it comes to recycling efforts and ocean cleanup, I think it's doing pretty well.
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