Drowning in Plastic
Every bit of plastic ever made is still with us—and it’s wreaking havoc on the ocean.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
LIFE ON EARTH depends on little specks floating in the ocean. Tiny plankton convert sunlight to energy to form the base of the marine food chain, sustaining all seafaring creatures, from anchovies to whales and the land-based animals that eat them.
But increasingly, researchers are peering through their microscopes at the specks in seawater samples and finding miniscule bits of poisonous garbage instead of life-sustaining mini-critters.
It’s plastic— broken by sunlight and water into itty bitty pieces, but still intact. And now scientists are discovering the implications of one troubling attribute of petroleum-based plastic, known since its invention, but ignored under the assumption that technology would eventually resolve it: Every plastic product that has ever been manufactured still exists.
Only 50 years since we began mass-producing it, our plastic waste has built up into a poisonous mountain we have never really learned how to deal with. It makes up 10 percent of California’s garbage, is toxic to burn and hard to recycle.
Out in the Pacific Ocean a vortex of trash swirls and grows, forming a garbage dump twice the size of Texas.
Out in the Pacific Ocean a vortex of trash swirls and grows, forming a garbage dump twice the size of Texas.~ ~
Sea turtles choke on plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Albatross parents ingest lighters and plastic shards along with squid and small fish, regurgitating them into their chicks’ open throats, eventually killing them.
Shrimp, jellyfish and small fish eat the particle-sized plastic debris that look a lot like plankton, and which, in some places, are three times more abundant than the real thing.
A 2004 report from the congressional Commission on Ocean Policy identifies synthetic marine debris as “a serious threat to wildlife, habitat, and human health and safety,” calling for a set of immediate measures to address the crisis. A growing number of decision-makers are finally paying attention, positioning California to lead the world in staunching the flow of plastic to sea.
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CAPTAIN CHARLES MOORE stands in a business suit before an audience of about 50 California district attorneys attending an environmental law-enforcement conference at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, giving his pitch about just how abundant and dangerous marine debris has become. The mass of plastic already in the sea is so big that researchers with his nonprofit, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, have found it throughout the water column in every sample they’ve ever taken from the Pacific Ocean. Most of it is so small and so abundant that it would be nearly impossible to filter out.
Yet the state’s current response to the proliferating debris, Moore tells the prosecutors, wrongly puts the most emphasis on cleanup, followed by control and prevention. He argues that it would be much more effective for the state to flip priorities and dedicate a majority of resources to preventing plastics from reaching the ocean in the first place. The DAs, here to discuss environmental crime prosecution, listen attentively.
After his keynote, Moore changes into a Hawaiian shirt for our lunchtime interview. He seems more comfortable this way, like he’d rather be playing on the beach than giving presentations. The founder of the Long Beach Surfrider chapter briefly considers catching a few waves with Monterey chapter chair Ximena Wiassbluth before heading back to the airport, but there’s no swell. He tells me that just a few weeks ago, on his 60th birthday, he surfed 30 waves in 90 minutes. “It’s a way to stay in contact with Mother Ocean,” he says.
Moore stumbled into his career as an environmental pioneer 10 years ago. In the summer of 1997, while steering his catamaran home from a sailing competition in Hawaii, he ventured into the North Pacific Gyre, a 10-million-square-mile, slow-moving vortex that sailors usually avoid. What he saw there shocked and disgusted him: truck tires, disposable utensils, shopping bags, buoys, toys, a mountain of trash spread across hundreds of miles— the world’s largest garbage dump, circling unceremoniously in the open sea.
Upon his return to the mainland, Moore took up his cause through the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which he’d founded in 1994 to do restoration work on kelp forests and wetlands. The nonprofit has since become the West Coast’s go-to organization on the topic of synthetic marine debris. “The ocean is still beautiful,” he says. “We’re really taking on this issue because we’re mad as hell that the most common thing that we find in the ocean now is plastic.”
Algalita researchers have found that the amount of micro plastics in the Central North Pacific has tripled in the last decade. Their colleagues on the other side of the Pacific concluded that off the coast of Japan it has shot up by a factor of 10 every two to three years.
A recent study found that plastics now make up 90 percent of all floating marine debris.
Plastic is not biodegradable, but rather photodegradable. Sunlight makes plastic brittle and breaks it down, but leaves its molecular structure intact. The little plastic shards disperse throughout the ocean, with buoyant pieces floating and denser bits sinking to the sea floor, in so many shapes and textures that hundreds of marine species mistake it for food. It can travel thousands of miles across the sea and wash up on remote uninhabited islands, whose beaches are beginning to look more trash-strewn than LA’s worst. The rate of trash accumulation is greatest at the poles, with Antarctica’s shores becoming the industrial world’s junkyard.
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THE MOST DRAMATIC accumulations of trash are found in “gyres” such as the one Moore sailed into— these sort of giant toilet bowls where atmospheric pressure weakens currents and winds, causing marine debris to idly swirl toward the gyre’s eye. Researchers know of six such gyres, including the one in the Pacific north of Hawaii that Moore is credited with discovering.
Researchers dubbed it the Eastern Garbage Patch, a neighbor to the Western Garbage Patch off the coast of Japan. In 1999, Algalita’s samples from the eastern patch contained six times more plastic than plankton by weight, roughly 400,000 particles per square mile— triple the amount counted in 1990.
The expanse of trash is estimated to be 540,000 square miles, but Moore says it’s growing so fast it’s nearly impossible to give it dimensions. When he sampled water 600 miles from the center of the gyre in November 2006— an area that had contained relatively low debris levels six years earlier— Moore was horrified to find nearly as much plastic as he’d found in the center of the gyre in 2000.
He now thinks the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches have merged into a mega-garbage patch stretching across the Pacific Rim, like sprawl connecting New York and Boston into a megacity of continuous development.
“It’s a single strip of polluted ocean,” he says. “Huge increases in production are making the whole ocean this plastic soup. Every creature in the ocean is eating plastic.”
Blending a seaman’s charisma with a businessman’s polish, Moore has managed to capture the attention of some powerful players— he’s met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the heads of various state agencies, and the Pope’s science advisor.
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ALGALITA STAFF MEMBERS conduct their own research, and also compile and analyze hundreds of other studies to understand the implications of a plastic-choked ocean.
The worst effects are seen in a sea-going bird that lives on Midway Atoll in the north Pacific. Researchers estimate that 40 percent of the albatross chicks that die on the atoll are killed by the plastic filling their guts, fed to them by their parents. The plastic contaminates their blood and blocks their digestive tracts, leaving them dehydrated and undernourished.
“Huge increases in production are making the whole ocean this plastic soup.” —Charles Moore~ ~
Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer of Beachcombers Alert says that plastic debris is taking a toll on hundreds of marine species. Baby sea turtles who get stuck in six-pack rings grow distorted shells; birds choke on plastic shards that mimic fish and krill; and sea lions are caught in nylon nets abandoned by fishing vessels.
Ebbesmeyer believes that plastic marine debris is also hurting people. Because plastic accumulates up the food chain, be says, some level of plastic is present in all of the seafood we eat.
In addition to the physical impacts, plastics are wreaking biological havoc on both marine and land-based animals, including humans. Virtually every kind of petroleum-based plastic leaches chemicals into the substances it encounters. Some of the chemicals added to make plastic products more flexible, durable and flame-retardant are suspected endocrine disrupters and hormone mimickers that can affect the development of creatures exposed to them. For example, recent research has linked bisphenol-A exposure with early breast development and menstruation in girls, feminine characteristics in boys, and decreased fertility in both sexes.
Tim Shestek, a spokesman for plastic industry group the American Chemistry Council (ACC), argues that the studies are misleading— that the effects of high concentrations of plastic additives on lab animals don’t translate to humans exposed to chronic low doses.
“The scientific consensus is that these compounds are safe in the current applications that they’re being used for,” Shestek says.
Moore counters that industry is on a mission to confuse consumers with biased science. He notes that of 149 government-funded studies on bisphenol-A, 93 percent found that the compound is harmful, but all 12 industry-funded studies concluded that it is benign.
Plastics also can absorb hazardous synthetic chemicals such as PCBs and pesticides. Researchers are finding that plastic debris pick up these compounds from the sea water, carry them for hundreds of miles, and then leach them out elsewhere, leading Algalita staff to dub them “poison pellets.”
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MANUFACTURERS make 60 billion tons of plastic every year, the majority of it for products that will be used once and thrown away.
Many of those single-use products are molded from melted pre-production resin pellets as tiny and light as lentils, and known as nurdles. A June 2006 Algalita report, funded by a state grant and produced in collaboration with the state Coastal Commission and Water Control Board, concluded that nurdles manufactured in the LA area often fly into the air or spill out of shipping containers, slipping through storm drains into coastal waterways and out to sea. They look disconcertingly like fish eggs to marine mammals with a taste for roe.
Escaped nurdles may now comprise about 10 percent of the ocean’s plastic debris. Abandoned fishing gear and trash from ships account for another 20 percent. The rest, 70 percent, is post-consumer litter from the land: fast-food containers thrown from car windows; renegade stuff from insecure loads on the backs of pickup trucks; litter that flows down rivers, spews from sewage treatment outfalls, and runs from urban streets through storm drains to the sea. And, of course, beach trash washed away with the tides.
While it might be feasible to clean up drift nets and other large marine debris, the Algalita report concludes that there’s just no way to scoop the billions of little bitty pieces of plastic out of the sea. The best we can do, the authors write, is to prevent more junk from flowing to the ocean.
Easier said than done.
Algalita reports that each person throws away an average of 185 pounds of plastic every year, and knee-jerk disposal has become a cultural habit. People tend to get rid of used products as soon as possible— and if there’s not a garbage or recycling can nearby, they often litter.
But as surely as plastics are flowing to the ocean, awareness of the problem is flooding into the mainstream.
This February, the Governor’s Ocean Protection Council unanimously adopted a six-part resolution to reduce and prevent marine debris. The Council suggests expanding California’s bottle bill to create rebates for recycled plastic debris; beefing up enforcement of litter laws; researching alternatives to petroleum-based plastic; coordinating regionally to reduce plastic pollution; banning the most toxic kinds of synthetic materials; and launching an anti-littering campaign called “Don’t Trash California.”
The OPC’s resolution set the stage for a raft of five Assembly bills, collectively called the Pacific Protection Initiative, aimed at tackling the problem. AB 258 would regulate nurdle discharge; AB 904 would require 25 percent of food service packaging to be compostable or recyclable; AB 820 would prohibit the use of Styrofoam at state facilities; SB 899 would phase out packaging containing certain compounds known to be toxic to ocean creatures; and SB 898 would set benchmarks for cleaning up abandoned fishing gear. The American Chemistry Council is lobbying against two of the bills.
Shestek, the ACC’s Sacramento lobbyist, attacks AB 820, the bill to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam), on the grounds that alternative packaging materials are just as ecologically questionable. Paper, he points out, takes about three times more water and energy to produce. “We haven’t really figured out how this [bill] is going to address litter other than change the composition of it,” he says. “There’s an environmental footprint no matter what kind of packaging you manufacture.”
The ACC also opposes AB 904, the bill regulating restaurant packaging. Shestek notes that even bio-plastics made from vegetable materials such as corn, sugar and potato starch linger in the environment, only biodegrading quickly in compost.
The ACC does not oppose the bill regulating nurdle discharge. Shestek notes that the industry already has a set of internal Best Management Practices aimed at proper nurdle containment, with suggestions as simple and cheap as using a shop vacuum to clean up spills.
Algalita’s June report found that most plastic producers ignore the BMPs because there is no penalty for violating them. That, Shestek admits, is a shame: “Anybody who’s using resin pellets ought to be taking responsibility for keeping them out of the storm drains.”
Nor does Shestek dispute the fact that recent years have seen a monumental increase in plastic packaging, though he doesn’t believe that’s a bad thing. In his view, plastic pollution results from a problem with people, not with the material. “We’ve been advocating for additional recycling opportunities to reduce disposal and reduce litter,” he says.
But activists argue that the ACC isn’t making a good faith effort to deal with the plastic plague it manufactures.
“They really haven’t come up with any kinds of solutions,” says Bryan Early, a policy associate with Californians Against Waste, which sponsors two of the plastic-tackling Assembly bills and supports the other three. “It’s their lobbying that holds these bills back.”
Even if none of the proposed legislation becomes law, we have plenty of options for reducing plastic marine pollution.
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ONE OBVIUOS SOLUTION is more recycling, but that’s tricky. Americans currently recycle less than 5 percent of their plastic waste, largely because only products coded #1 and #2— milk jugs, soda and water bottles— melt at low temperatures. These can’t be re-used as food containers because chemicals and residues stay in the plastic and the quality degrades, so they’re destined to become less intimate products like furniture, carpet and fleece clothing. Higher codes, including polypropylene stuff like bottle caps, need high temperatures to melt. The toxic emissions they release make them virtually unrecyclable.
Some activists are putting their faith in another kind of technology: bio-plastics made from vegetable materials. Moore is skeptical about this solution. Although the products are renewable, biodegradable and increasingly economical, he points out, they still leave an environmental footprint. And some brands are engineered to break down rapidly in compost piles, but not in a cold sea with scarce fungi and insects. Bio-plastics that are mistakenly thrown in the recycle bin can muck up petro-plastic recycling, and bio-plastic litter can still clog storm drains and choke sea creatures.
A no-brainer is to prevent people from littering, especially in coastal rivers and beaches— through placement of more trash and recycling cans, better enforcement and education. According to an article in the DA Association’s most recent environmental prosecution newsletter, prosecutors already have a bunch of legislative tools for going after marine polluters: the federal Refuse Act, Clean Water Act and Ocean Dumping Act; the state Water Code and Fish and Game Code; and the international MARPOL Protocol. If ongoing research finds plastic debris impacting whales’ and otters’ survival, plastic disposal may also be regulated under Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
But, as Drew Bohan of the California Ocean Protection Council pointed out at the District Attorneys’ recent conference, prosecutors don’t tend to go after environmental violations with the same vigor as other crimes.
After hearing Moore’s presentation, Steve Holett, deputy district attorney for Monterey County, says he doesn’t have any fresh ideas for reducing the flow of plastic debris into the Bay. “We are not aware of any [local] manufacturers of plastic, and we have not received any reports from our health department regarding issues of plastic disposal,” he says. “I’m not aware that there is plastic in Monterey Bay.”
But other agencies are taking action. The Monterey Regional Waste Management District recently convened a Litter Abatement Task Force, co-chaired by Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud and County Supervisor Dave Potter, which set up a website allowing citizens to report litter violations. One tip about illegal dumping on Highway 68 led to a jail sentence and several years of probation for the offender. In May and June, the Salinas Valley and Monterey Regional waste authorities teamed up to sponsor a theatrical performance called “¡Basta Basura! Enough Trash!,” featuring a garbage-covered character who encouraged visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium not to pollute the sea.
And local activists are pushing ahead. Surfrider’s Monterey chapter has launched a campaign called “Plankton, Not Plastic,” with members working to turn back the tide of litter flowing from the Peninsula.
Monthly beach clean-ups make a difference on the ground, while a public outreach campaign encourages food servicers to shift to compostable packaging and City Councils to adopt plastic waste-reduction measures. Individual actions can be as simple as bringing canvas bags to grocery stores, re-usable mugs to coffee shops and Tupperware to restaurants.
Surfrider’s campaign builds on momentum created by other cities. In March, the city of San Francisco mandated that grocery stores use recyclable or compostable bags. And last December, Capitola’s City Council became the first on the Monterey Bay to pass a resolution regulating the use of Styrofoam take-out containers. The ordinance was to take effect on July 1 of this year, but the new City Council has announced that it will reconsider the prior council’s ban. Local Surfrider activists have joined forced with the Santa Cruz chapter to encourage the City Council to stand by its earlier decision, in hopes that Monterey County cities will follow suit.
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STROLLING NEAR the Municipal Wharf, Moore shifts into research gear. Along the dock he finds a chip bag, a plastic water bottle and a broken-up Styrofoam cup floating in a mass of twigs and dirt near a sunken orange traffic cone. “What are the fish eating underneath that?” he asks. “Some of it is mimicking food.”
A few hundred yards down the shore, he discovers plastic cups and nylon rope wedged into the cracks between some boulders. He nabs a drifting plastic bag, which he calls “the modern tumbleweed,” and shakes his head at sheets of black plastic laid under the rocks, likely intended to stabilize the slopes: they’re already tearing, broken down by the sun. “That’s all becoming part of the ocean environment right now,” he says.
After combing Monterey State Beach for a half hour, Moore peers into our bag of collected litter and does an impromptu analysis. He concludes that cigarette butts, whose filters are made from cellulose acetate, are the most common plastic debris, followed by Styrofoam and bottle caps. He finds a few broken-up, brittle plastic pieces that he says have floated in from afar, but he estimates that roughly 90 percent of the beach’s litter is local. “That means that you can do something about it through local enforcement.”
Eras of human history are defined by their most prominent materials, Moore theorizes. Throughout the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, societies have followed a pattern of extracting a resource, expanding its industry, and recycling only when it begins to run out. He says that since 1979, when the tonnage of plastic exceeded the tonnage of steel produced, we’ve been in the midst of the Plastic Age. We don’t recycle much of it now; only when oil becomes more scarce will we begin “mining our landfills.” And that, Moore asserts, is the central contradiction of our times: the popularity of disposable products made from a material that lasts forever. “Plastic is the lubricant of globalization,” he says. “That’s what facilitates all this junky stuff making it to all the corners of the earth.”
He’s quick to point out that he’s not an enemy of petroleum-based plastics per se; it’s just the temporary-use stuff that gets to him. “We really have to start thinking about plastics being forever,” he says. “The world needs to wake up for the potential of plastics to be what we wanted when we got into this thing: durable. It could be OK to have something you got when you were young and lasted you your whole life. But that is bad for an economy based solely on growth and waste. That’s the same paradigm as a cancer cell.”
“It’s like when you break your leg— it never heals totally,” Moore says. “There’s no such thing as complete recovery from an environmental insult.” But that’s not to say we shouldn’t try.
“Only politics guided by sound science can save us,” he adds. “The objective is to not screw things up in the first place.”
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