THE CONSENSUS

Undeniably a culture of behavioural changes, now in its infancy, need to further blossom and be implemented/prompted at all levels: individual, associative, governmental, legislative, industrial, technological, educational, philosophical, national, and international.

It simply starts with individual choices. That is the enormous task, yet the enormous power as well because it resides within each and every one of us. Indeed, thanks to an increased awareness of the plastic pollution spread, local, national, individual, and associative actions have taken place worldwide to stop the plastic hemorrhage at the source.

EDUCATION, LEGISLATION, AND AWARENESS

Education

The starting point of all greater good does remain education and information.

More and more awareness and preventive programs are promoted.

For instance, in 2004, the Australian government launched a campaign called Keep the Sea Plastic Free, in which it attempted to educate the public to dispose of plastic waste properly.

Surfrider foundation is aiming to raise awareness of plastic marine debris and reduce the proliferation of single-use plastic bags and water bottles, as well as the number one littered item worldwide, cigarette butts. The Rise Above Plastics program also seeks to promote a more sustainable lifestyle and educate people about the prevalence of plastic marine debris on our beaches and oceans and how deadly it can be to marine life.

Southeast Asia

South East Asia – Philippines, 2008. Photo: Tamara Thoreson Pierce

The Indonesian government, for instance “(is) seriously concerned about improving its waste management and informing the public,” quoted the Jakarta Post, 2008. The head of the Maritime and Coastal Resources Studies, Tridoyo Kusumastanto, said that both individual and industrial dumpers should learn from scavengers who take solid waste out instead of dumping it into rivers, canals and the sea. Tridoyo estimated that some 40 tons of waste have been dumped into rivers and other waterways daily in surrounding areas and thus polluting the Java Sea. A campaign against river and sea pollution has been called, and people are urged to change their culture of throwing garbage into waterways and other common places.

Being educated on the situation and aware of the consequences ultimately leads us toward better choices in term of consumption and waste management of plastic at an individual level. It can be as simple as refraining from discarding plastic after first use…plastic inherently chosen for its durability.

plastic-pollution-india

Mumbai Impressions… when the water retreats… Plastic Pollution. Captions and Photo source: ©© Don Domingo

As H. Takada mentioned: “We can’t avoid using plastic, but we use too much. “In fact, he’s added a fourth “R” to the ecologist’s classic mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle: refuse. The current bring-your-own-bag movement at retail stores and supermarkets is a good start in terms of refusing, he notes.

Instantaneous, prompt eradication of plastics in its current form, rate of production, and consumption is not realistically feasible, yet constant pressure is impacting industry and politicians to “think green,” to have environmentally responsible approach, production, prevention plans, and legislations.

EXTEND PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY

Relentless associative campaigns have proven that change can happen, such as the recent victory from the Uk’s Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) campaign against mermaid tears.

“SAS launched a campaign to rid British coastlines of mermaid tears, and will continue to build up until factory practice changes.” On June 5th 2009, the release of the British Plastic Federation’s (BPF) Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) guidance manual was a victory on the preventive field. OCS is aimed at improving British plastic factories efficient use of plastic pellets, commonly referred to as mermaid’s tears. SAS initially highlighted the problem of mermaid’s tears on UK beaches to the BPF in 2007, delivering a bottle of 10,000 mermaid’s tears, collected from one Cornish beach, to a BPF biopolymer seminar. SAS also released a covert film documenting mermaid’s tears in the storm drains of plastic factories in the southwest, highlighting the route from factory to beach. SAS and the BPF have worked together on the OCS solution. SAS has already signed up Contico, one of the southwest’s largest plastic factories, to pilot some of the improvements within OCS.

Shoichiro Kobayashi, from The Japan Plastics Industry Federation, says that its members have taken measures to reduce spillage of plastics nurdles.

“Awareness of the problem is high,” says Kobayashi, and has been since JEAN and other NPOs started publicizing the issue about 15 years ago. The federation has about 1,000 members. Together with the 2,200-member All Japan Plastic Products Industrial Foundation, the two groups represent the largest plastic producing companies in Japan. Kobayashi says his organization encourages members and associated transport companies to avoid spillage and to cover all drainage pipe openings with wire mesh. That’s helped reduce the problem at larger companies, but there are more than 20,000 producers of plastic goods in Japan.

On September 22nd 2009 in California, a press conference was held by DTC director Maziar Movassaghi and Project Kaisei founder Mary Crowley, along with representatives from the State of California and various nonprofit groups. They pushed for Extended Producer Responsibility, the philosophy that companies that create products must take responsibility for the full life cycle of those products, products that are “benign by design.” Mary Crowley added, “Let’s reduce the source of this pollution by not only choosing healthy, plastic-free products ourselves, but also urging our legislators to pass Extended Producer Responsibility legislation. In fact, such a bill is currently on the table in the state of California. AB283, the California Product Stewardship Act, is an important step in this process.”

Changzhi, Shanxi Province

Changzhi, Shanxi Province. Photo: Stringer Shanghai

Local legislations, with clear frames and enforcements measures, are increasingly being presented and passed in concert with international programs and legislations, which need ratification by as many countries as possible as the pollution is without frontiers.

LEGISLATION AND INTERNATIONAL CONCERTED PROGRAMS

Internationally

In 1972, the London Convention, a United Nations agreement to control ocean dumping, was entered into. It was followed by the most well known piece of International legislation, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships (MARPOL). Annex V of MARPOL was introduced in 1988 with the intention of banning the dumping of most garbage and all plastic materials from ships at sea. A total of 122 countries have ratified the treaty. There is some evidence that the implementation of MARPOL has helped to reduce the marine debris problem.

UK Beach

UK Beach. Photo Source: SWNS

In 1972 and 1974, conventions were held in Oslo and Paris, respectively, which resulted in the passing of the OSPAR Convention, an international treaty controlling marine pollution in the north-east Atlantic Ocean around Europe. A similar Barcelona Convention exists to protect the Mediterranean Sea. The Water Framework Directive of 2000 is a European Union directive committing EU member states to make their inland and coastal waters free from human influence. In the United Kingdom, the proposed Marine Bill is designed to “ensure clean healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas, by putting in place better systems for delivering sustainable development of marine and coastal environment”.

Under the umbrella of UNEP, numerous cooperative efforts have been held to reach protocols and conventions. For instance, a Protocol on Integrated Coastal Zone Management was approved in January 2008, involving 21 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the European Union. Within the framework of Land Based Sources Protocol for pollution reduction from land-based sources, Mediterranean countries and parties to the Barcelona Convention have agreed this year on an initial set of actions covering the reduction of municipal pollution and the elimination of a number of Persistent Organic Pollutants.

The Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) continues to encourage member states in meeting the Caribbean Challenge target of protecting 20 percent of marine and coastal habitats by 2020. The Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystem Project and development of a Regional Fund for Wastewater Management will support regional collaboration to reduce the vulnerability of sensitive coastal and marine ecosystems by improving national and regional governance structures and developing new and innovative mechanisms for financing new pollution reduction activities.

Even though the greatest problem with international legislation is its actual enforcement, the efforts toward concerted actions can only be promoted.

Nationally

A strict Chinese limit on ultra-thin plastic bags significantly reduced bag-related pollution nationwide during the past year. “Our country consumes a huge amount of plastic shopping bags each year” a spokesperson for China’s State Council said, when announcing the ban last May. “While plastic shopping bags provide convenience to consumers, this has caused a serious waste of energy and resources and environmental pollution because of excessive usage, inadequate recycling and other reasons.” In January 2008, The State Council, China’s parliament, passed legislation to prohibit shops and supermarkets from providing free plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimeters thick. The State Administration of Industry and Commerce also threatened to fine shopkeepers and vendors as much as 10,000 Yuan ($1,465) if they were caught distributing free bags. The country avoided the use of 40 billion bags, according to government estimates. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) estimated that the limit in bag production saved China 1.6 million tons of petroleum.

The first country to ban plastic bags was Bangladesh, which did so in 2002. Following a particularly damaging typhoon, authorities discovered that millions of bags were clogging the country’s system of flood drains, contributing to the destruction.

In the same year, Ireland took another approach and instituted a steep tax on plastics. According to the country’s Ministry of Environment, use fell by 90 percent as a result and the tax money that was generated funded a greatly expanded recycling program throughout the country. In 2003, the government of Taiwan put in place a system by which bags were no longer made available in markets without charge. Carryout restaurants were even required to charge for plastic utensils.

Larger economies have joined the cause and passed legislations on a national level. In 2005, French legislators imposed a ban on all non-biodegradable plastic bags, which will go into effect in 2010. Italy will also ban them that year.

During its 2008 session, the New York State Legislature passed legislation requiring the reduction, reuse, and recycling of checkout bags. The previous year, the city of San Francisco banned plastic bags altogether, at least the flimsy ones of yore. National Public Radio reported a few months later that the ban had been a boom for local plastics manufacturers, who have been introducing heavy-duty, recyclable, and even compostable bags into the marketplace.

MEDIA AND CREATIVE AWARENESS

An impactful vehicle for information and awareness is indubitably found in the media and creative ventures.

A good example of such ventures is the team of two South African surfers, Ryan and Bryson Robertson, and one Canadian, Hugh Patterson, who created the OceanGybe mission. Their plan is to circumnavigate the globe in a small 40ft sailboat and surf remote reef breaks on far flung islands while interacting with the local cultures. They intend to spread awareness of the vast tracts of plastic and trash afloat on the world’s oceans that inevitably ends up on some unsuspecting shore.

Fishing debris on beach

Fishing debris on beach. Photo Source: unknown

More publicized and funded is the environmentalist and Adventure Ecology founder David de Rothschild’s expedition: the Plastiki mission.

The Plastiki, a one-of-a-kind 60-foot catamaran, was created out of 10,000 reclaimed plastic soda bottles, self-reinforced PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and recycled materials. The vessel’s name is a nod to famed explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who led a 1947 voyage on the Kon-Tiki to test theories of Polynesian settlement by South Americans. The Plastiki is about to make its momentous voyage across the Pacific Ocean, a 10,000-mile expedition from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia by the end of this year, to inspire people to rethink current uses and waste of plastic as a resource and bring attention to the GGP.

De Rothschild explained that Plastiki’s construction has already jump-started research into a future “smart plastics” industry before ever leaving port. For instance, studies are underway on glues that could someday replace common marine epoxies and plastics that could replace non-recyclable fiberglass.
“The Plastiki voyage will be a great adventure, but I think more exciting is the ability to create a conversation on the issue of plastics.”

Philosophy

Adventures of philosophical nature have been taking place as well.

Indeed, French thinkers such as Michel Serre or Luc Ferry, The new ecological order, have developed a train of thought aiming towards a legal recognition, therefore legal protection of Nature. This type of philosophy has been called, deep ecology. The principle is quite simple: democracies have installed their legislative framework, their “social contract,” omitting Nature as a protagonist/subject of law. Therefore, to protect Nature, i.e. our environment, should we confer legal right to it, thus making nature a legal subject/person?

Obviously, all subject of law have rights, but they also have obligations. If we can easily forsee what the right and protection would be for this legal subject, what would be its obligations?

This leads many thinkers towards a notion of “droit ou devoir d’ingerence ecologique” (right or duty of intervention/assistance), trying to mirror the situation on the humanitarian field. The notions of “self defense” and “non assistance a personne en danger” have also been explored as possible legal frames to better enforcement of laws and conventions aimed to protect the environment, and curb ocean plastic pollution for that matter.

plastic pollution albanie

Décharge Plage, Albanie. Photo: ©© Antoine Giret / Un2Vue

Sustainable And Future Technologies – Opportunities And Innovations

  • Biodegradable Plastics Biodegradable plastics have been considered as a future, sustainable option to curb our voracious demand and consumption of plastic material as known in its current form. According to the Biodegradable Plastics Society (2005), when such plastics are composted they break down to carbon dioxide and water. Controversy does exist though, because it is possible that biodegradable plastics do not break down fully, especially under environmental conditions which are not ideal for composting, and leave non-degradable constituents, some of which may be equally, if not more, hazardous. Also, there is a danger that biodegradable plastics will be seen as “litter friendly” materials, conveying the wrong message to the public and potentially leading to less responsible and more wasteful practices. A change in behavioral propensities to over-consume plastics, discard and thus pollute, need to be promoted to the fullest.
  • Ongoing Discoveries And Solutions To The Traditional Plastic Waste Problem Scientists have been searching for solutions to the traditional plastic waste problem. In 2008 and 2009, two high school students who discovered plastic-consuming microorganisms, might have found groundbreaking solutions. African coast, plastic pollution and marine debris. Photo: Candace Feit The first was Daniel Burd (2008). The second was Tseng I-Ching(l May 2009), a high school student in Taiwan. Daniel’s simple and clever process was to immerse ground plastic in a yeast solution that encourages microbial growth, then isolating the most productive organisms. After several weeks of tweaking and optimizing temperatures, Burd was achieved a 43 percent degradation of plastic in six weeks, an almost inconceivable accomplishment. It appeared as an environmentalist’s dream: a non-chemical, i.e. fully organic, low cost and nontoxic method for degrading plastic. There have been several successful bacteria based solutions developed at the Dept. of Biotechnology in Tottori, Japan, as well as at the Dept. of Microbiology at the National University of Ireland, but both apply only to styrene compounds. Similarly, a 2004 study at the University of Wisconsin isolated a fungus capable of biodegrading phenol-formaldehyde polymers previously thought to be non-biodegradable.
  • Green Chemistry And “Begnign By Design” Concept A growing interest amongst chemists, and ultimately industries, is Green chemistry- policy, also called “benign by design”. According to scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), a new type of environmentally friendly plastic that degrades in seawater may be developed. Robson F. Storey, Ph.D., a professor of Polymer Science and Engineering at USM, said, “We’re moving toward making plastics more sustainable, especially those that are used at sea.” Their study is funded by the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), which is supporting a number of ongoing research projects aimed at reducing the environmental impact of marine waste. The new plastics are made of polyurethane that has been modified by the incorporation of PLGA

[poly (lactide-co-glycolide)]

, a known degradable polymer used in surgical sutures and controlled drug-delivery applications. When exposed to seawater, the plastics degrade via hydrolysis into nontoxic products, according to the scientists. The plastics are not quite ready for commercialization. “More studies are needed to optimize the plastics for various environmental conditions they might encounter, including changes in temperature, humidity and seawater composition”, Storey says.

beach litter

Photo: The Midway Journey

A new kind of material, called oxo-biodegradable plastic, does not just fragment, but is consumed by microorganisms after the additive has reduced the molecular weight. It is thus biodegradable. This process continues until the material has biodegraded to nothing more than CO2, water, humus, and trace elements. There is little or no additional cost, as it can be made with the same machinery and workforce as conventional plastic. The time taken to degrade can be programmed to a few months or a few years and, until the plastic degrades, it has the same strength and other characteristics as conventional plastic. Oxo-biodegradable plastic will be engineered to degrade in a short time leaving no harmful residues.

Recycling And Zero Waste Concept

A promising way toward a future of better plastic waste management is recycling the material. The recycling industry might eventually be a path leading to considerable opportunities and solutions.

The BIR (Bureau of International Recycling), whose headquarters is in Belgium, is a trade federation representing the world’s recycling industry. About 800 companies and national federations from over 70 countries are affiliated with the BIR. Together they provide their expertise to other industrial sectors and political groups in order to promote recycling. It is estimated that the recycling industry employs more than 1.5 million people, annually processes over 500 million tons of commodities, and has a turnover exceeding $160 billion.

However, this industry is faced with many challenges, as the recycling material itself is very diverse in a chemical sense and can release, when processed, extremely dangerous chemicals. For instance, a recycling factory in China was recently exposed to tragic consequences due to the recycling of very hazardous plastic materials. It was reported that a team of workers in China’s Zhejiang province collapsed after handling two metric tons of plastic scrap on September 13, 2009. At least 21 have since been hospitalized and three of them have died. According to the initial investigative conclusions, the victims were in contact with highly toxic chemical, dinitrophenol, which was found on the two tons of plastic scrap. Workers at the recycling factory were unaware of the hazard of the material and had no protection during the unloading. This particular tragedy is only the tip of the iceberg. China’s plastics recycling industry is poorly regulated, with scandals such as biohazard plastic waste being melted and reprocessed into consumer goods.

Recycling is definitely a potentially great path to solving the plastic waste problem but definitely not the most unchallenging one.

Photo: ©© tedxgp2 / Plastic pollution coalition

Along the same lines, a responsible waste strategy, namely the concept of Zero Waste, has been widespread. Such a strategy encompasses waste reduction, reuse and recycling as well as producer responsibility and ecodesign. According to a Greenpeace report, strategies to achieve Zero Waste are adopted throughout the world, in industrialized countries and in less developed countries.

Ultimately, this would mean reduction of the use of plastics. “Our understanding of disposal and reuse (of plastic, is what) is to blame.” as many environmentalist such as de Rothschild, said.

This zero waste philosophy encourages the redesign of resource’s life cycles, so that all products are reused. Any trash sent to landfills is minimal. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature. Zero waste can represent an economical alternative to waste systems, where new resources are continually required to replenish wasted raw materials.

DTSC’s Environmental Chemistry Laboratory is currently analyzing some of the plastic marine debris collected at the Great Garbage Patch by Project Kaisei scientists, and explores the potential of converting the plastic collected into new material.

Indeed, Doug Woodring from Project Kaisei stated last September that they intend to use some of the newest plastic technologies to detoxify and turn the plastic waste caught in the oceans either into fuel or another useable material. Thus, Project Kaisei hopes to assign value to that plastic collected, particularly the overwhelming majority that is never recycled. It becomes obvious that technologies that convert plastic to fuel, clothing, or simply more profitable plastic could give people a good reason to pick up all that plastic and make a profit from it. Numerous industries, such as fashion, are already increasingly focusing on new green materials as a base for their offered products, encouraging a way of life and cultural change toward better choices and awareness of the environment.

“It’s controllable,” DougWoodring said. “We have to let people know that enough is enough, but it’s not just a negative story about toxicity and wrecking our oceans. There is a huge amount of opportunity for innovation.”