Environmental Progress: Plastic Pollution in Oceans

In 2003, Captain Charles Moore sailed his vessel through a section of ocean water that rarely sees traffic. Weak winds and ocean currents make the area a poor navigational choice. As a result, most ship captains choose an alternate route. This has been the case for generations. Captain Moore found himself short on time and talked his crew into making the shortcut across the patch of water. What he and his crew found, shocked environmentalists. Moore described the site by saying that plastic drifted on the surface of the water for as far as the eye could see in every direction. The problem with plastic pollution in oceans had come to light.

Scientists had long suspected the potential for plastic to accumulate in the ocean. The lack of wind or currents allows for the material to continually build up. As it turns out, there are five of these places around the globe. They have now come to be called the five gyres. Sadly, they have another name that you may have heard of – ocean garbage patches.

It’s not really a surprise this happened when you think about it. Walk along nearly any stretch of coastline and you find trash that doesn’t belong. It is estimated that 8 million metric tonnes of plastic trash is lost to the seas every year. That’s 17,600,000,000 pounds of disposable water bottles, plastic bags, toys, shampoo bottles, and other plastic debris every year. What’s frightening is that the number is growing every year – Ocean Conservancy projects this rate to double over the next 10-years.

With 5 trillion pieces of plastic drifting in the ocean, the impact to wildlife has been devastating. Keep in mind that these estimates don’t even include the number of microbeads flushed into the water supply. Researchers at the University of California Davis and Oregon State University have estimated that 8 trillion microbeads wash out to our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans every day. This number is completely boggling. When you expand this to consider how many microbeads are released each year, the number is 2.9 X 10(15). The researchers identified that this figure represents only 1% of all microbeads – the remainder is captured in sewage treatment plants.

Researchers have seen countless cases of wildlife getting caught in lost fishing nets and lines. They have also been able to confirm that fish are ingesting the plastic. These are not isolated incidents; but challenges taking place all over the world. Fish tested in California and Hawaii both tested positive for plastic found inside their bodies.

The plastics act as toxic magnets drawing in deadly PCBs that cause liver damage in the fish. If it causes that kind of harm to the fish, what do you think happens when it gets to your dinner plate?

Now, we have some serious problems to solve for here. When this series started, I said I wanted it to be a way to show that positive action is taking place to solve the challenges impacting the planet.

So let’s move on to how some great innovators are dealing with these problems.

How People are Solving for Plastic Pollution in Oceans

We need to be realistic about this challenge. There are no silver bullets out there to deal with plastic in our oceans. Fixing this problem is going to take a number of solutions attacking it from different directions.

Let’s examine a few of the ways innovators are tackling the plastic pollution in oceans.

  1. Microbeads – These tiny beads inserted into personal care products have been a huge problem for our aquatic habitats. One of the many problems is that they are designed to go into the water supply as they wash down the drain. Further, since plastic doesn’t biodegrade, every microbead that has made its way to the ocean is still in existence. It doesn’t take long to figure out these things are bad. The good news is that microbeads bans are expanding all over the planet. The United States will start its ban starting in 2017.
  2. Use Prevention – Long-term solutions will take time; however a number of organizations are helping to tackle the problem at its source. Many people feel this is the only real solution to dealing with plastic pollution in oceans. They’re doing this through a number of proposed strategies:
    • Proposed legislation that holds manufacturers accountable. An example of this would be reduced plastic in packaging material.
    • Holding garbage collections companies accountable for proper handling of material – this is a big problem in some Asian countries.
    • Shoreline cleanup programs.
    • Implement container deposit programs across more states. The programs are only in a small handful of states; however, many of those states experience a reduction in beverage container litter of over 70%.
  3. Bioplastics – These are plastics engineered from organic materials; usually agricultural waste after harvest. Bioplastics represent an outstanding way to help curb our national dependence on oil, there is still some work to be done to ensure these products can integrate with current recycling programs or are biodegradable.
  4. Other Innovations – These are some of the most exciting prospects for the future. Many of them may not seem practical in today’s world; however, they are likely to open the door to further innovations in the future. Here is a sampling of just a few of the innovations being researched:
    • One inventor has proposed the creation of floating collection platforms be built throughout the ocean. The platforms would passively collect materials as it passes by through natural currents.
    • Scientists in Japan have discovered a species of bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis, that is capable of living off the plastic found in many day-to-day products including water bottles.
    •  Stanford University researchers identified that mealworms are able to survive on a diet of polystyrene plastic.

Eliminating Plastic Pollution in Oceans – Are We There?

The short answer is no. We’re not even close. In reality, the problem grows greater every year as the amount of plastic materials goes up. Further, no international coalition exists on the scale needed to enact real change.

Innovators will continue to seek solutions to get there; but the most immediate impact is going to come from consumers making the decision to properly recycle.

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