Earth Day Focus: Get Plastic out of the Oceans

For the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, organizations around the world are sponsoring events, new publications, and programs. In the U.S., the Earth Day Network is organizing two full days of events on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on April 24th and 25th. See updated coverage of Earth Day at Google.

Perhaps one focus on Earth Day should be creating a plan to address the massive garbage patches in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. According to an article in The Huffington Post, “Our Plastic Ocean Turns Forty,” there are now “continent-sized bowls of plastic soup” floating in the oceans. The Pacific Garbage patch, just one of eleven major gyres, says Ocean Trust Film, “covers an area approximating ten million square miles, […] roughly the size of Texas.  It contains approximately 3.5 million tons of trash, including shoes, toys, bags, pacifiers, wrappers, toothbrushes, and bottles too numerous to count.  First discovered in 1988, the size of the patch has roughly doubled in the last five years.”

Plastics in sea water attract bacteria and absorb polychlorinated biphenyls. Continual wave energy breaks plastics into tiny plastic components eaten by fish, which are then eaten by people. In other cases, the garbage that hasn’t been broken down also causes major problems for sea life. On this year’s Earth day, a whale found dead off the coast of Seattle was found to have more than “50 gallons in volume, from hand towels, surgical gloves, duct tape to sweat pants” in its stomach. The local news station’s Web site says the whale was feeding off the coast. 

The Huffington Post argues that Earth Day launched a real movement. In the U.S. alone in 1970, more than 20 million people participated in Earth Day events. However, since then, plastic production has only exploded. “Use of single-use disposable plastic and plastic pollution grew exponentially. The plastics industry stepped on the gas, hired lobbyists and marketers and did their thing. Profits from plastics soared. Life became more ‘convenient’.” In return for convenience, we’ve gotten massive garbage patches.

Some scientists are working on alternatives to plastics.  While recycling can lead to reuse of many plastics, they can only be down-cycled, and fossil-fuel-based break apart after continual recycling. There aren’t currently any “cradle to grave” fossil-fuel based plastics. Wikipedia lists a range of bioplastics or organic plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable oil, corn, or various starches. However, many of these new technologies haven’t scaled up so the costs remain high.

Regulatory or legislative action on plastic waste products may be part of the solution. In the world of technology, the EU’s WEEE-ROHS system has helped ensure hazardous elements in electronic products are captured and reused. The European Union describes the system: “The legislation provides for the creation of collection schemes where consumers return their used e-waste free of charge. The objective of these schemes is to increase the recycling and/or re-use of such products. It also requires heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium and flame retardants such as polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) to be substituted by safer alternatives.” The EU is also exploring expanding WEEE-ROHS so it can tackle the “fast increasing waste stream of such products.” Perhaps a similar system is needed so that fossil-fuel-based plastic components are designed to be fully recycled, and any waste biproducts are addressed early in the design and manufacturing process. 

There has also been a move towards turning waste into energy through incineration. If plastic and other wastes can’t be recycled, perhaps they can produce new energy. The New York Times describes Denmark’s cutting-edge incinerator technology and its benefits: “Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago. In that time, such plants have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark, from wealthy exurbs like Horsholm to Copenhagen’s downtown area. Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.”

Across Europe, there are now 400 of these plants turning garbage into energy. Most of these are located in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. While incineration has taken off across the European Union, inefficient, methane gas-producing landfills still remain popular in the U.S. A country of 300 million people, the U.S. has less than 90 incinerator plants, even though the E.P.A. now classifies burned waste as a renewable energy eligible for subsidies.

To limit demand for plastic, there are legislative and regulatory efforts to reduce use of plastic bags and other common applications. In Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and other U.S. cities, there are now taxes on plastic bags (see earlier post). Some countries, like China, Russia, Uganda, Ireland and South Africa, have announced total bans on plastic bags. However, this needs to occur worldwide to get plastic materials out of oceans. According to The Times of India, around 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. India’s plastic waste alone is around 4.5 million tonnes a year. This is the result of every day use: 10 to 12 plastic bags are used each day by every Indian household.

Lastly, some designers are trying to turn those massive ocean garbage patches into resources. Rotterdam’s WHIM Architecture came up with an impractical but interesting idea — “Recycled Island,” a plan to turn those continent-sized floating garbage patches into habitable islands. Good magazine writes: “the island would be built out of the muck already out there polluting the Pacific, which would clean the ocean of the debris and also put that waste to use. Ridiculous, yes. Impossible, probably.” But can floating ocean garbage be turned into a resource (perhaps, even a renewable energy source)?

Add your thoughts. How would you address plastic supply and demand?

Also, check out Ocean Trust, a group working with the producers of “Super Size Me,” to create a documentary on the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Image credit: Ocean Trust Film

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