by Liz Skolnick
A number of people have asked me about ocean debris and ocean plastics lately, questions usually taking the form of: "So, what's going on with that giant garbage patch in the ocean? Isn't it like, twice the size of Texas?" Although known to the scientific community since the late eighties, the existence of ocean “garbage patches” didn’t reach public consciousness until decades later. Now the issue of marine debris, with a focus on plastics, is receiving international attention from environmental groups and a public increasingly concerned with its impact on the global ecosystem. For those of you that don’t know, let’s start with some basic questions: What are ocean “garbage patches”? And how did we discover them?
Discovery of the ocean garbage patches
Although marine pollution has been around for longer than we can know, the extent of the problem became clear about 30 years ago, when Alaska-based researchers discovered large amounts of marine debris gathering in calm areas of the Pacific Ocean. Based on their observations and corroboration with research from Japan, they hypothesized that similar masses of debris must exist in other parts of the Pacific Ocean. These findings led to the discovery of the North Pacific garbage patch, and in 1988, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) published a paper describing this phenomenon.
Though it contains plenty of visible floating debris, much of the garbage patch consists of microplastic particles invisible to the naked eye, so that a sailor in the vicinity may not be able to recognize the true extent of the floating expanse of pollution (estimated anywhere from about the size of Texas, to that of Russia - a whopping 5,800,000 square miles). We now know that in addition to the Great Pacific garbage patch, there is a North Atlantic garbage patch of similar composition; that is, mostly plastics.
As many news articles have reported, the amount of trash entering the oceans is equivalent to one truckload every minute, a shocking figure that is difficult to fathom. It’s also evident that plastic has found its way into the ocean’s food chain, as particles mistaken for food are ingested by fish, seabirds, and sea turtles among other organisms, many of which starve with bellies full of the plastic debris. Back in 2015, the Ocean Conservancy issued a warning that ocean pollution was reaching a “crisis” level, estimating that by 2025 the oceans would contain more trash than fish. In the state of this growing crisis, what is being done?
Making headway across the seas
In recent years, many initiatives and coalitions have grown out of concerns over marine pollution. Last year, the European Union held its fourth annual Our Ocean conference, which focused on ocean pollution, overexploitation, coastal degradation, and climate change. According to their website, achievements from this conference included 433 “tangible and measurable” commitments, $8.5 billion in financial pledges, and the addition of around 965,000 square miles of Marine Protected Areas. About one year ago, UN Environment launched their #CleanSeas campaign, which resulted in many coastal countries making pledges to cut back on single use plastics and take other important steps to protect the marine environment. And here in the US, the Save Our Seas Act passed the Senate last August, renewing funding for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and encouraging the State Department to work with top contributors to marine pollution curb their escaping waste.
In the private sector, last year six corporate giants - MARS, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Werner & Mertz - pledged or renewed pledges to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025, as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative. Some innovative companies such as Zogg’s Ecolast swimwear are even harvesting ocean plastics to fabricate their products.
But there’s more to be done…
As the Ocean Conservancy discussed in their 2017 Annual Report, “nearly half of the plastic that flows into the ocean every year … escapes from waste streams in just five rapidly developing economies in Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and China).” These countries are the target of a new initiative to upgrade waste collection and sorting technology, and improve recycling markets with the aim of dramatically reducing the amount of material that makes its way into the oceans. Since a huge percentage of the world’s waste and recyclables are processed by these countries, improving their waste sectors makes a lot of sense.
But we also need to look upstream towards the waste generators themselves (all countries, but particularly economically developed countries with high levels of consumption, like the US), and at the products we use and buy everyday. As Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace US, said in an oft-repeated quote "There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw something away it must go somewhere." As consumers, we can do our part by reducing our waste to begin with, by pressuring companies to quit their use of plastic and other non-biodegradable packaging, and by supporting legislation requiring the use of recycled content. I believe we have much more power to create this kind of change than most of us realize. At the end of the day, our choices add up, and in our own way, whether it be through helping with a beach clean-up or opting for a reusable water bottle, we each have the power to effect positive change.