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  Ocean Conservancy Autumn 2007
Breaking the cycle of plastics in the ocean
Ocean Conservancy Magazine
Story by Andrew Myers

On the remotest Hawaiian atoll, a thousand miles from Honolulu, a researcher comes upon the decomposing remains of a Laysan albatross chick, a “gooney bird,” as it’s known.

The dead bird’s white and smoky gray feathers twist in the wind. A few break off and tumble down the beach. Clearly visible through the bird’s denuded rib cage are the remnants of its last meals. Red, blue, yellow, orange—the colors are striking against the feathers and bleached bone. Plastic shards. A bottle cap. A cigarette lighter. No one can say for certain what killed the bird, but there’s enough plastic in its gizzard to limit, if not cut off, the vital nutrients it needed to survive.

Nearby, a live adult bird hovers over an eager chick, regurgitating a slurry of half-digested food and plastic into the young bird’s waiting mouth.

Hundreds of miles away on another Hawaiian beach, on another day, a seal lies on the sand as the sun hangs near the waterline.

It is one of perhaps 1,400 remaining Hawaiian monk seals and it is in great distress. Concerned people approach to help, but the seal barks preemptively to keep them at bay.

A few feet away lies a second seal, this one motionless. The top half of its body is shrouded in translucent blue fishing net bejeweled with red foam buoys. The people can only watch from a distance until the bereft survivor gives up its vigil and slips back into the sea.

The dawn of plastics

A long way from Hawaii, almost exactly one century earlier to the day, James Swinburne entered the British patent office with a dark and sticky sludge, a concoction that when heated could be shaped into a solid of most any form, but with one big kicker: the material was preternaturally resistant to water, heat, and solvents, and it would not conduct electricity.

It was unlike anything ever known to humankind and it revolutionized a world just then beginning to hunger for cheap, effective electrical insulation.

Unfortunately for Swinburne, Belgian-American inventor Leo Baekeland filed his patent for Bakelite, the same substance, one day earlier. Bakelite became Earth’s first truly synthetic polymer.

To the ages of stone and bronze and iron, the world was about to embark on another: the age of plastics. All across the planet, in universities, corporate research facilities, and makeshift garage labs, scientists and would-be inventors scurried to discover the next breakthrough polymer.

In the coming century they would deliver a seemingly endless stream of materials of every imaginable description and use, many with remarkable properties previously unknown or unimagined.

Valuable properties, too: elasticity, lubricity, tensile strength, and rigidity. You name it, plastics promised to do it.

Plastics shaped the twentieth century as surely as atomic weapons or television.

Not one of us can say our lives have not been affected and, yes, improved by plastics. Plastics have made our lives more convenient. They have also made us safer (from germs) and longer-lived (think heart valves). No one can deny the reasons plastics captured our imagination or why they have caught on to the point of absurdity.

Somewhere along the line, thirty or forty years ago, our reliance on plastics began to mushroom. By 2006, the United States was producing 376 pounds of plastic each year for every man, woman, and child in the country.

Giving up the ghost

Lightweight and effective, plastics became indispensable and we now use them for countless, often unnecessary, applications.

So ubiquitous and inexpensive are plastics that we’ve become a single-use, throwaway society— a society where that which we throw away never really goes away.

And herein lies the problem. While polymers can stop bullets, it seems nothing can stop them. Synthetic plastics do not biodegrade. At best, they break and break again into smaller and smaller pieces, but begrudgingly, if ever, do plastics give up the ghost.

The fact remains that, save those incinerated, every single molecule of synthetic plastic ever created is still on this planet and probably will be for centuries.

Convenience comes with a cost. Plastics, we know now, or are just beginning to learn, have a steep environmental downside. Our landfills are gorged with plastics; our trash cans, stuffed.

Countless diaphanous plastic bags roll across the countryside like 21st century tumbleweeds or end up in the sea where they are mistaken for jellyfish and eaten by unsuspecting birds and sea turtles. They can be seen hanging high in tree branches like strange fruit, stark witnesses to carelessness.

And, as is far too often the case, plastics end up in the ocean. In fact, as much as 80 percent of all marine debris comes from land-based sources, blown there by the winds or carried there by rivers.

Grim consequences

And that brings us to the middle of the wide Pacific Ocean, where the Hawaiian Islands dot the water like pearls strung 1,400 miles end-to-end.

Most of the islands are uninhabited—and uninhabitable—by humans, but the unmistakable signs of society are nonetheless a ghostly (and ghastly) presence.

Debris lost to the vast North Pacific Ocean can meander in the circular Pacific currents for years. Situated along these prevailing currents, the Hawaiian Islands act like a sieve of sorts, collecting that which drifts by.

Claire Fackler, national education liaison for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, has seen the consequences, particularly for Laysan albatrosses.

The chicks, she says, naturally produce a bolus—a hard mass of indigestible materials (squid beaks and pumice)—that gets vomited like a cat’s hairball. “Out of the approximately 10,000 Laysan albatross chicks that hatched on the remote Kure Atoll [each year],” she says, “every single bolus contains plastic and other marine debris.”

Discarded or lost fishing nets made of durable, buoyant plastic drift untended, reaping fish, sea turtles, and seals in a grisly effect known as “ghost fishing.”

The entangled dead and dying become bait for others in a perpetual cycle of death. Often, these ghost nets drift until they snag on coral reefs where they exact an altogether different toll.

Here, the waves and the wind beat the nets back and forth, raking pristine corals to rubble until the nets break free to kill again or are themselves torn to bits.

In one study of recovered derelict nets, a fifth of the total weight retrieved was attributed to broken coral.

The frontlines

Jim Coe founded the Marine Debris Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1985 and ran it for a decade. He is considered the “godfather” of marine debris prevention.

“We did good work and things would be worse if we hadn’t, but capacity [for producing plastics] and demand continue to grow worldwide,” says Coe of today’s problems.

“The solutions are large and complex, and almost too difficult to comprehend, involving broad cultural changes in the way societies use and dispose of plastics.”

Personal responsibility plays a huge part in solving the problem. Consumers must be more cognizant of the problems that plastics create and understand that what we toss away carelessly will linger far longer than we might ever imagine, or wish to contemplate.

“It’s a behavioral issue,” says Seba Sheavly, an authority on marine debris and a former employee of Ocean Conservancy. “Why are the lighters and toothbrushes in the water in the first place? People, wherever they are, need to learn to dispose of or recycle our waste better. The material itself is not a bad thing, it’s what people do with it that must change.”

Sheavly is now a private consultant to Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), the world’s largest volunteer marine cleanup effort.

Last year over 350,000 people in 68 countries participated in the ICC, hauling in a staggering seven million pounds of debris on a single September day.

She asserts that cleanups, while as important as ever, are perhaps more valuable as educational opportunities than for the actual debris collected.

It is a year-round problem, she says. The debris simply returns.

In Panama, for example, as part of an experiment to demonstrate the persistence problem, three beaches were cleared of all their debris then left to gather trash anew. Half the original debris load was back in just three months.

Searching for alternatives

Changing how we handle plastics will help, but changing demand has gathered momentum of late.

The question then becomes not, “What to do with plastic?” but “Why so much plastic?”

Several towns in the US are mustering support to ban single-use, disposable plastic bags. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go.

The world uses one million every minute, but less than one percent of them get recycled. “Go to the average grocery store. What are your non-plastic choices? For anything? Basically none,” says Wallace J. Nichols, a senior scientist at Ocean Conservancy.

“Recycling is not a silver bullet either. Bottom line: the technology exists to solve this problem, the science that identifies it as a real problem is increasing, and the political will is growing.”

Enter bioplastics, one such alternative to conventional plastics but made from renewable, often biodegradable plants like soy and corn. There are a few showing promise.

Thermoplastic starch is the most widely used. Polylactide acid (PLA) can be processed on existing plastics equipment, a huge concern in an industry with billions invested in infrastructure. PHA natural polyesters are biodegradable in aquatic, marine, and soil environments and are easily composted.

Current bioplastics cost more and have physical characteristics that qualify them only for certain uses. The plastics industry points to these factors when explaining that the market won’t bear costly, poor-performing plastics.

Demand, for now anyway, is for inexpensive, lightweight and durable products. Accordingly, many large producers have been slow or unwilling to venture into bioplastics or other alternative materials.

“Inferiority depends on use—how long you need them to last, temperature, et cetera,” says Nichols. “To drink a Jamba Juice or get groceries there seem to be many degradable alternatives. But for single-use beer cups that last an eternity and are nearly free? There’s nothing like petro-plastic.”

The situation is complicated, but many are beginning to say we need to reevaluate the real cost of convenience, bioplastic or conventional. We must start to weigh price and physical properties against intended use, waste management, dead and injured animals, oil and energy use (conventional plastics are made from petroleum), and greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

So, as “greens” and “browns” are waged in a philosophical battle for the future of plastics and the planet, back in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands work continues apace to clean up that which we have already wrought.

A joint effort of government, private, and non-governmental partners set out to collect and dispose of ghost nets in the Hawaiian Islands. So far, the collaboration has netted a respectable 565 tons of gear in a decade of effort.

The United States, however, produced almost 57 million tons of plastic last year alone.

Nonetheless, the recovered nets proved so voluminous as to present an altogether different dilemma: What do we do with it all? The answer? Turn it into fuel, of course.

To date, the collected nets have generated enough electricity to power 242 houses for a year. What comes around, goes around … and around … and around.

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