October 5, 2012

Punt The Plastic

“What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It's that simple."
    - Marcus Eriksen, Algalita Marine Research Foundation

The Plastic Age heralded a new era of consumerism and convenience. But it came with a huge price tag in unintended consequences. In the end we may decide that plastic has done more harm than good, and many are calling for a major rethinking of the Plastic Age in an era of a growing global health crisis.

One of the unintended consequences of plastics has to do with our oceans and the things that depend on them. Albatross nesting 2 thousand miles from the nearest continent feed their chicks bits of plastic debris found floating on the ocean. Tens of thousands of chicks a year die of the resulting starving, choking, and toxicity.

Plastic persists in the environment for hundreds of years or longer. Samples of plastic found in the ocean patches contain primarily:
  • low-density polyethylene - #4 plastic (used mostly for plastic bags, plastic wraps, and six pack rings)
  • polystyrene - #6 plastic (used for disposable cutlery, CD cases, packing materials, closed cell foam insulation, and disposable foam drinking cups)
  • polypropylene - #5 plastic (used in textiles like fabric and carpet, ropes, diapers, and food containers)
  • polyethylene terephthalate, or PET - #1 plastic (used in beverage and food containers, packaging trays, carpets, and plastic bottles)  
Much of this material is not recycled or properly disposed of, and a lot of it ends up in waterways, and eventually the ocean.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is an immense area of mostly plastic garbage that has accumulated in the North Pacific Ocean. It is only one of several similar garbage patches in the world's waters. They contain up to 90% plastic.

The Garbage Patches are not solid islands, but have been described as a kind of "plastic soup" with bits of various sizes held in the column of water below the surface. The debris has also been identified as plastic "confetti".

Eventually the plastic waste enters the food chain and works its way up and back onto our disposable plastic plates in our food. It may be that it is impossible to retrieve the plastic and other garbage from the water it is suspended in.

Algalita, a marine research institute, recommends instead that we work at reducing our plastic use, and preventing plastic from entering our waterways in the first place.

On their website they stress the importance of finding ways to alleviate the problem of plastic accumulation in the world's oceans. Algalita says, "We need to DO NO MORE HARM, and stop the flow of waste into our marine environment.

They suggest some ways to help:

  • Reconsider the use of plastic products, and the way you do things. Can an alternate material, such as paper, glass or aluminum serve the same purpose? (When I make yogurt at home I skip the plastic container that the store bought stuff comes in, and put mine in a reused glass container.)
  • Try not to use single use/disposable products made of plastic, such as cutlery, water bottles and plastic bags. Stainless steel water bottles are a reusable alternative. Carry cutlery from home with you.
  • Reduce the use of plastic, and reuse materials wherever possible. Consuming less will decrease the waste of unnecessary plastics. Become a responsible consumer.
  • Encourage more investigation and research into alternate materials, such as compostable, or biodegradable plastics.  
  • Support closed-loop manufacturing processes that capture waste, and reuse it as a raw material.  
  • Recycle all materials properly. Turn waste into a resource. Some creative products are now being made from recycled plastics. 
"No one solution is the answer, and there are many more ideas yet to come that will generate a whole new set of solutions. We believe human creativity, changes in habits, and technological developments will eventually result in our oceans being clean again."

Plastic has been found in almost 300 different species tested around the world, such as birds, turtles, fish, and whales, including orcas. Nearly 100% of the albatross tested contained plastic bits mistaken for food.

Help the albatross, other marine animals, and your own health, and work toward punting the plastic in your life. Plastic used for short-lived or superficial applications is the easiest to eliminate, and is a good place to start.


  1. Anonymous10/07/2012

    This is a great post. The steps that Algalita recommend go beyond the" Marine Litter" campaign by the plastic industry. http://www.facebook.com/l/IAQEFnZL1AQGOdow_6gnd8SR6AOA0OUapBX4Q4HFWlvGyOg/www.marinelittersolutions.com

    I am not a fan of the "Marine Litter" characterization of the problem. It is just one aspect (although very important one) and it tends to say that if only people changed their habits the problem would go away without any major change in how we manufacture plastic.

    Even if there was 100% containment of plastic through purposeful recycling... there will always be disasters like the Japanese tsunami which will deposit millions of pounds of plastic into the ocean.

    We must rethink how plastics are made and which products they can safely be used in.

    I would like to see an initiative similar to what Patagonia has started in the textile business where companies rate their processes according to sustainability using a Value Creation Index (VCI). There is a great video on UCTV by the Vice President of Patagonia, Rick RIdgRidgway this topic. "http://www.youtube.com/embed/sdAiuCCDsPA
    This is a tool that can be used by companies to measure and rate their product sustainability. In the best world, the ratings are published and readily available to the consumer when they purchase a product. They created a Sustainable Apparel ColalCoalitionttp://www.apparelcoalition.org/ which is joined by Walmart and many other big companies who realize something must be done.

    I am not sure if the plastic industry has in place a VCI or any plans for a VCI. If a VCI tool was used in the plastic industry, the bottom line profits would be directly related to how well the processes are rated relative to sustainability.

    I believe a VCI goes beyond what the plastic industry has in mind with their "Marine Litter" campaign.

    1. Nice comment - lots of good info there. I checked out your link for the Marine Litter Campaign, and they lost me at "Plastics Industry's initiative...". I also prefer Algalita's approach.

      Thank you for mentioning the VCI - it is obvious that this is the direction we have to move in, and the sooner the better. If something isn't sustainable, it shouldn't be happening.

      I am glad that we are moving in this direction, and that consumers are beginning to realize the power they have when they adopt habits of responsible consumption. We can say no to harmful corporate practices, and take our money elsewhere.


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