Hunting for Plastic

By | November 24, 2018

Plastic pollution has become an urgent, worldwide problem. The average person now ingests about 100 plastic particles each year from eating shellfish and up to 68,415 plastic fibers each year just from the plastic dust particles landing on their plates during meals. Tap water, bottled water1 and sea salt2 also come with a “side order” of microplastics.

Many of the chemicals used to make plastics disrupt hormones, embryonic development and gene expression, and are linked to obesity, heart disease and cancer.

Marine animals are also gravely affected. Microbeads, tiny plastic pellets that consumer product industries put in body washes, facial scrubs and toothpaste, now fill the bellies of sea animals and act as a sponge for other toxins. The death toll grows.

The Bane of Microbeads

In 2008, researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney showed that tiny plastic particles don’t simply pass through sea creatures unnoticed, as was once thought. Using mussels as an example, the study3 revealed that ingested microplastics first accumulate in the gut but, within three days, travel to the circulatory system where they remain for more than 48 days.

According to a 2016 National Geographic report,4 as many as 4,360 tons of microbeads were used in personal care products sold in the European Union in 2012, all of which were flushed down drains and ended up in waterways. One-third of the fish caught in the English Channel contain microbeads,5 as do 83 percent of scampi sold in the U.K.6

Microfibers from clothing also seriously contribute to plastic pollution. When they are released into waste water systems during washing, the irregular shape of these plastic particles renders them more difficult for marine life to excrete than other microplastics. In addition to physical blockages and chemical poisoning, microfibers consumed by marine life can cause the animals to feel artificially full, eat less and ultimately starve to death.

Plastic Hunter Boyan Slat Gives New Hope to Plastic Pollution

An insightful and encouraging new documentary,7Boyan Slat Hunting for Plastic,” shows how one committed young man and his organization, Ocean Cleanup, are addressing plastic pollution on a global scale.

At the core of Slat’s plastic cleanup efforts is a trash-collecting barge or “barrier.” The barge works like an artificial coastline — long floating arms catch plastic waste swept into its folds by currents. The plastic debris is then offloaded to a boat that sweeps by periodically, likely probably once a month.8

The collection barge relies entirely on ocean currents for energy and does not need an external energy source. Electronics on board are powered by solar panels. (People also “can get their email,” Slat jokes in the documentary, because the collection barge has Wi-Fi.)

It is a completely passive system, says Slat, that works with nature. The difference in speed that the plastic, barrier and the water travel — surface water moves faster than plastic debris, which moves faster than the barrier — ushers the plastic into the barrier. If the plastic and barrier floated at the same rate, “you will never capture plastic,” explains Slat. The barrier is looking for “the path of the least resistance,” he says.

The 600-meter-long (about 656 yards) barge or barrier sports a “skirt” that hangs 2 or 3 meters (6.5 or 9.8 feet) below, in the water, to collect debris. Since the skirt is positioned in the middle but not at the edges, it allows the barrier to assume a U-shape Slat notes is central to collecting the plastic debris.

Even if the wind and water take a different direction or speed, the passive system will still work, says Slat. Moreover, wind and water directional and speed changes will not alter the barrier’s U-shape that is crucial to its ability to pick up plastic.

Slat Has Studied and Perfected His System

Before Slat’s venture, his team, which includes 65 engineers among other staff, conducted “reconnaissance” of the North Pacific. They organized an expedition of 30 ships to measure larger pieces of debris. They also flew over the area to measure amounts of even bigger trash like huge discarded fishing nets.9

While the Slat team originally thought of fixing the barge to the ocean floor, they changed their minds. “We thought ‘wait a minute, instead of fixing it to the seabed, we can fix it in that deep-water layer,'” explained Slat. “The massive sea anchor slows down the system so it travels slower than at the surface, and the plastic still accumulates along the barrier and toward the center of the system.”10

Their first test of the collection barge was planned for the Great Pacific garbage patch, also called the Pacific trash vortex — a 1.6 million-square-kilometer area of ocean between Hawaii and California that is roughly equivalent to 618,000 square miles.

The patch has high concentrations of plastic debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre11 — most suspended and often microscopic plastic particles being in the upper water column.12 Slat predicts that 50 percent of total trash in the Great Pacific garbage patch can be removed in just five years at a cost significantly less than $ 320 million.13

So far, funding for Slat’s ambitious project has come from crowdfunding and investors from Silicon Valley. Slat does not take such largesse lightly. Financial supporters are investing in a promise, he says, and The Ocean Cleanup has got to deliver on that promise. There will not be a second chance to prove the efficacy of the plan he notes — the support is finite. If all goes well, Slat hopes to build over 120 systems.

The documentary shows The Ocean Cleanup employees moving into their brand-new offices, presumably funded by their financial supporters. Later they throw Slat a gala birthday party. The employees, mostly young, appear to be eager to address plastic pollution of oceans aggressively and to be full of idealism.

All Types of Plastic Pollute the Oceans

Microplastic is the worst kind of plastic, says oceanographer Laurent Lebreton, who appears in the documentary because it can, and does, invade the entire food chain from honey and beer to bottled water, tap water and salt. A big challenge in containing plastic damage is keeping the larger plastic pieces from degrading into microplastics says Lebreton.

Approximately half of the plastic in the Great Pacific garbage patch is fishing nets says Lebreton, displaying the unsightly clusters to the camera. In the middle of the clusters are massive “knots” of plastic twice or three times the size of beach balls which, despite their heft, are able to float.

Finding production codes on the plastic debris is useful in understanding their source and their behavior, says Lebreton, noting that one piece of plastic debris The Ocean Cleanup has collected has a production code from the 1970s.

Another piece of plastic that Lebreton displays for the camera, the size of a baseball, had been in the ocean so long, coral had wrapped around it. Yes, plastic is actually changing the ecostructure of oceans.

Harm to Animals

Many colorful plastics are thought by marine life to be “food” says Lebreton in the documentary, and he displays plastic pieces with teeth marks where animals have pathetically sought to “feed” and ended up with bodies full of plastic.

Lest anyone doubt the harm ocean plastic is wreaking on marine life, employees in the documentary are shown a videotaped autopsy of a sea turtle. Sure enough, as it is sliced open, plastic bags and other plastic objects are retrieved from the turtle’s body –– greasy, black and lethal to the turtle being autopsied.

“This is 30 seconds of what was a four-hour autopsy” of four turtles, explains an Ocean Cleanup employee who was involved with the autopsy. “When we opened them up, the conditions were awful,” and all the cases of their deaths “were related to plastic.” “You are not just here for what the world says, you are here to save animals and they will thank you for that,” he concludes to applause.

Valuable International Friends

Slat and The Ocean Cleanup have the support of important European Union (EU) leaders. One of the group’s advisers is Feike Sijbesma, CEO of Royal DSM, who has an on-camera meeting with Slat in the film.14 Royal DSM is a Dutch multinational active in the fields of health, nutrition and materials, headquartered in Heerlen.15 DSM is also a financial supporter of The Ocean Cleanup.16

Slat and The Ocean Cleanup also have the support of Frans Timmermans, a Dutch politician and diplomat serving as the first vice president of the European Commission and European Commissioner for the Better Regulation, Interinstitutional Agreement.17

“You can ban all plastics,” he says in a meeting with Slat, but if there’s “no recyclable degradable alternative” you have not made much progress. This “entails more than just cleaning up plastic, it’s about producing as little plastic as possible,” he says.

Both men agree that awareness of the ocean plastic pollution problem is finally being raised. The plastic is hidden under the surface says Slat, but once “our ships come back filled to the brim with plastic debris, people will be shocked and motivated.” “Five years ago, they [other EU countries] would have laughed at us,” agrees Timmermans, marveling at how far the movement to clean up ocean plastic has come.

Beyond Cleanup –– Plastic Use Itself

For years I have suggested that plastics should not be single-use and that people should recycle more. The truth is, recycling has been a dismal failure, especially in the U.S. Even as the realities of plastic pollution loom larger than ever, recycling rates remain disappointing in the U.S. and much of the world.

In the U.S., nearly 260 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) are generated annually, but only 90 million tons of this MSW are recycled or composted, making up a recycling rate of close to 35 percent. That’s down from 37 percent in 1995. In other words, even though plastic production and pollution are way up, recycling is less common than it was 24 years ago.

Even though most plastic water and soda bottles are made from highly recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET), most such bottles end up littering oceans and landfills because people fail to recycle them. The Guardian18 reported that fewer than half of the plastic bottles purchased in 2016 were recycled, and only 7 percent were made into new bottles.

In contrast, Norway recycles up to 97 percent of its plastic bottles, the spoils of an environmental tax that plastics producers in the country must pay if they don’t reach a recycling target of 95 percent or more. Producers who meet the target recycling rate do not have to pay the tax, which most accomplish by attaching a deposit of about 15 to 30 cents to every plastic bottle.

Reverse vending machines are found all over Norway, in schools, grocery stores and more, making it easy for consumers to bring their plastic bottles back for recycling and the return of their deposit.

The Spin of Plastic Manufacturers Should Be Ignored

Plastic manufacturers tout the merits of plastics in helping food to stay fresh longer, travel longer distances and avoid contamination but environmentalists know that a better solution is that people buy “local,” purchase sensible amounts of food that don’t go to waste and use reusable containers in home fridges to avoid disposable plastics.

In the U.S., the idea of attaching deposits to plastic bottles has been suggested but lobbied against by manufacturers who worry the increase in price could affect their sales. Even in areas where bottle return centers have been built, like California, they haven’t been widely frequented, and in fact have dwindled in numbers by 40 percent over the last two years.

Certainly, properly recycling plastics, and better yet, opting for items that are not sold in plastic containers to begin with, refusing straws and bottled water, and using refillable bottles and coffee mugs are simple ways to reduce plastic pollution. Nor has The Ocean Cleanup’s project ignored the problem of recycling existing plastic objects, observes Fast Company:19

“The long-term plan is to recycle all the plastic collected into items like car bumpers, chairs and eyewear, and for companies to sponsor each boom with prominent logos. That will help defray the cost, he says. It’s a fail-proof, wonderfully imaginative, scheme. We’ll just have to hope it’s as seaworthy as Slat imagines.”

Addressing Food Plastics Is Not Enough

Luckily, many are now aware of the harm of plastic bags, plastic containers, plastic straws and bottled water. Many are now using refillable bottles and coffee mugs are other simple ways to reduce plastic. Still, fewer people are aware of the significant harm to our oceans from the microfibers in their clothing.

People may believe by avoiding plastic food-related items they have done all they can to help with plastic pollution without looking at their clothing at an important source of plastic pollution. For example, a synthetic jacket may release up to 2.7 grams (250,000 microfibers) with each washing. Wastewater treatment plants filter 65 percent to 92 percent of microfibers, which isn’t enough to prevent environmental pollution.

One “solution” to the microfiber pollution problem would be to install filters in washing machines — similar to lint traps in dryers — that could catch the fibers prior to them being released with the wastewater. The problem with this solution, however, is what becomes of the microfibers when they’re disposed of in landfills? Clearly the plastic pollution problem persists.

What Makes Slat Tick

According to estimates, by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight,20 which is exactly what inspired Slat to launch his radical, plastic removing The Ocean Cleanup campaign. In the documentary, Slat says his mission began when, “while diving in Greece I came across more plastic bags than fish.” Slat was in high school then and is now only 24 but clearly helming an idea whose time had come.

It is not a surprise that the Netherlands would lead the way in addressing ocean issues, says The New York Times:21

“That’s because from the first moment settlers in this small nation started pumping water to clear land for farms and houses, water has been the central, existential fact of life in the Netherlands, a daily matter of survival and national identity.

No place in Europe is under greater threat [from climate change] than this waterlogged country on the edge of the Continent. Much of the nation sits below sea level and is gradually sinking. Now climate change brings the prospect of rising tides and fiercer storms.”

What motivates Slat’s efforts? Too many people think of innovation as a way to get rich and not a way to “enrich humanity,” he says.