Monday, April 30th, 2012

Awareness of Marine Litter Rises, Plastics Industry Increases Efforts

A new article and a new book appeared last week, each focusing critically on plastics ocean litter, and each gaining media coverage that likely will draw more attention to the issue of plastics in the seas. Unsurprisingly, neither the article nor the book mention any of the projects aimed at the marine litter issue by the plastics industry through its major trade associations.

Published online at Geophysical Research Letters, the article titled “The effect of wind mixing on the vertical distribution of buoyant plastic debris” describes how when ocean water was sampled at depths of five and ten meters below the surface, significant amounts of plastic debris, most of it micro-sized, was found. Within days the story was published on major and minor news websites and blogs to say previous estimates of the problem were ‘vastly’ underestimated.

Marine plastic particles

Most plastics found in the oceans are micro-particles smaller than 10 mm.

The authors wrote that they collected, on average, 2.5 times more debris in the layers of water below the surface layer (the top 9.8 inches) than was found in the surface layer. The wind and currents are factors, such that in high winds the volume of trash could be underestimated by a factor of as much as 27. Plastic debris was found at depths of 20 to 25 meters using specially designed nets that open and close at the desired depth.

The newly published book Garbology by Edward Humes takes on a broader subject — the overall generation of trash. The first 96 pages of the 262-page volume are given to the increase in solid waste in the USA over the last century, particularly since World War Two, and explores the emergence of landfills as a primary means of disposal.

The 31 pages following the discussion of solid waste are spent describing the extent of ocean litter, specifically the plastic part, and describing some of the research being done on marine waste and the scientists involved. They mostly agree that the research is still in the early stages, and there is much that needs to be learned.

The United Nations estimates that at least 7 million tons of trash ends up in the oceans every year, of which 5.6 million tons are plastics. However, there are no islands of trash as some reports lead us to believe. Rather, the distribution of the litter is widespread. Researchers say that the further they take their ships, the more they find plastics, mostly micro-particles smaller than 10 millimeters, and they are abundant. It is, they say, like sailing through a soup or chowder.

In Garbology, Humes makes clear that the research will continue, as the article mentioned above proves, and that it will take years — no one knows how many — to gain a reasonably full understanding of the problem and its dimensions. A major failing of the book, in my opinion, is a near absence of recommendations for resolving this issue. The epilogue offers five tips for individuals, all of which you have probably read in consumer magazines, but there is nothing approaching a corrective scheme or strategy. Perhaps there isn’t yet sufficient understanding of how to go about that daunting task.

Nowhere in either the article or the book is there mention made of any of the work done by the plastic industry toward finding solutions. You would not know the industry has been actively championing recycling for decades; keep plastics out of both landfills and the oceans by using them again. More recently, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association joined plastics industry representatives from around the world in Dubai on November 16-17, 2011 to create an action plan of solutions to marine litter.

The plan describes specific actions to be taken and that progress will be reported during 2012. Approximately 100 projects to be carried out in 32 countries have been identified, and those are in addition to the global activities supported in common by all signatories to the agreement.

The Operation Clean Sweep program aimed at zero pellet loss in plastics handling facilities that SPI launched in 1992 was a major step toward comprehensive marine litter solutions. Effective among SPI member companies and others, OCS currently is expanding in Canada and other countries outside North America.

Within the “Declaration for Solutions on Marine Litter” signed by 54 plastics industry organizations at Dubai, the plastics industry created a partnership with The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), an advisory body to the United Nations on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection. SPI’s CEO Bill Carteaux said at the time, “We are proud to join

the GESAMP initiative as one part of our industry’s effort to better understand and prevent marine litter.”

Activities of the global plastics industry regarding marine litter will be available to the public on a special website, which has been launched in English with other languages to be added.

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