I thought back to my last column about extended producer responsibility, EPR. The movie was terrific, by the way, and not fluffy at all. It was full of hard facts and plenty of interviews with people from all over the world, representing different aspects of the environment but totally focused on plastic contamination in our oceans. There was a protagonist who introduced us to his family. They had a brand-new baby. The father wondered about the effect of plastic contamination from the ocean on his new child: contamination that breaks down into microscopic particles that eventually end up in fish, exposing them to the chemicals in plastic and eventually entering into the food chain that his baby will eat. There were pictures of birds feeding their young with bits of plastic, whales wrapped in plastic fishing nets, and tuna being cleaned, only to find plastic bags and bottles in their stomachs. Need I say more? You get the picture, I’m sure.
One further anecdote about the movie. The protagonist tries to interview the leading plastic associations to hear their side of the plastic story. Never once, after repeated attempts, would these folks respond to his requests for an interview. I find this hard to understand. While we, and they, know we have a problem with plastic contamination, there is also a very positive spin to plastics, particularly in packaging applications. I certainly don’t defend single use plastic bags. However, I think SPE, SPI, APR, etc., all missed a great opportunity to defend their industry.
It is startling to think that plastics were introduced to the world less than 70 years ago. Remember the movie “The Graduate” from the 60’s? A middle-aged neighbor talks to Ben about a future career and says, “One word, plastics!” Just think, during the 50s and 60’s we were producing about 4 – 6 billion pounds of plastics per year. Today we produce over 600 billion pounds per year. That’s right, billion. Over 90% of this is virgin, which means we’re only recycling 10%. And, of the 600 billion pounds, about 20 billion pounds end up in the ocean.
I’d say that’s a problem, particularly since it’s been going on for a long time. No wonder “Bag It” was so pointed and dramatic. Let’s face it, there are lots of pieces to the problem of ocean plastic contamination. To me, this means there isn’t one solution or that one size fits all. It is not that simple. The numbers are staggering: we make 600 billion, recycle 60 billion, and contaminate the ocean with 20 billion, which means? Yes, it means that 500 billion plus of plastic is being landfilled every single year. This is just plain unacceptable; we need a different take on that single word of advice given to Benjamin at his graduation party.
Together, education, EPR and industry must join forces to change this dynamic. We don’t have any choice, in my opinion. The problem is only getting worse because the Chinese have finally said they don’t want our plastic junk any more. Indeed, this all began almost 24 months ago. As a result, US recyclers shifted shipments of plastic by-product to Taiwan, Vietnam, India and other South East Asia destinations. Guess what? That’s right, these countries are also saying, “no more.” The solutions must be found here and the producers must lead the charge.
There are five ocean gyres in the world where plastic concentrates. Most of us know that a gyre is a circular or spiral motion. However, when referring to ocean gyres, these five gyres “are large systems of rotating ocean currents.” Here’s what Google has to say about gyres:
Wind, tides, and differences in temperature and salinity drive ocean currents. The ocean churns up different types of currents, such as eddies, whirlpools, or deep ocean currents. Larger, sustained currents – the Gulf Stream, for example, go by proper names. Taken together, and more permanent currents make up the systems of currents known as gyres.
There are five major gyres: the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres, the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres, and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre.
In some instances, the term “gyre” is used to refer to the collections of plastic waste and other debris found in higher concentrations in certain parts of the ocean. While this use of “gyre” is increasingly common, the term traditionally refers simply to large rotating ocean currents.
So, gyres are ocean garbage patches, ocean landfills if you will. (For a detailed look at one of the Pacific gyres, check out the info on page 38.) Once plastic is collected in these patches it doesn’t go away (and remember, once plastic gets in a landfill, maybe we don’t see it, unlike the plastic in the ocean. But it will be there for years and years – upwards of 500 years!).
What should we do to solve the problem? First, education regarding recycling and disposal. Second, reduction of single use plastic in packaging applications. This is beginning to happen now, not just bags but straws. Most of the major consumer producers are making design changes in the use of plastic. There is a shift back to paper and paperboard.
And finally, innovation.
Several years ago, I wrote about enzymes that can break down polyester bottles. That was a really neat development and that innovation is continuing to mature. But what if the bottles end up in the ocean? Enter Boyan Slat, a 22-year-old Dutch entrepreneur. Boyan has developed a device that he believes will trap the plastics that are in those five gyres. He founded an organization called Ocean Cleanup that has designed and assembled a system that has been towed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is located between Hawaii and California. The idea is to trap and concentrate the plastic by using the natural currents of the ocean. Research shows that the plastic in the Patch is still in pretty large pieces.
By removing the plastic while most of it is still large, Ocean Cleanup can prevent it from breaking down into the dangerous microplastics that I mentioned earlier. This is fascinating and the kind of innovation we must support, not so much to solve the problem, but as a way to clean up the mess we’ve created.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.