Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the oceans. What can we do to stop it?
Every year, an estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste enters the oceans.
Why has is come to this and what can we do to stop it? To fathom such quantities, Associate Professor Jenna Jambeck paints the following picture: “If we were to stand hand in hand covering all of the coastline in the world, each one of us would have in front of us five grocery size bags filled with plastic. And that is what is going in every single year.”
Professor Jambeck was recently in Phuket to present a paper on the production, use and fate of plastic. Part of the University of Georgia College of Engineering, she is the Director of the Center for Circular Materials Management and recently took part in a study trying to quantify the amount of plastic entering the oceans.
“Most of the initial science or investigation into plastic in the ocean was simply looking out to the ocean and reporting what they were finding, but no one really knew how much plastic was out there,” says Ms Jambeck. “What is different about the studies we did is that we tried to quantify how much plastic is making it into the oceans every year, what are some of the potential sources and what can we do to mitigate the problem.”
Becoming Part of the Food Web
The findings of the study are deemed so important that Jambeck and her colleagues at the Center for Circular Materials Management are part of the US State Department’s International Information Program whose mission it is to facilitate conversation with foreign publics about US policy priorities.
According to Ms Jambeck, the most known impact of plastic in oceans began from an ecological and wildlife standpoint. This line of research gave us images of entanglement, indigestion, malnutrition and even death by starvation of animals that consume the plastic and die due to a lack of nutrition. “The focus then started to shift towards the fish that we eat,” explains Ms Jambeck. “For example, other researchers have found plastic in the stomachs of fish sold at markets and we know that some fish that have been exposed to plastic show liver lesions, which is a precursor to cancer.”
The problem, according to Ms Jambeck, is not just the plastic that we can see. A lot of the plastic that ends up in the ocean is in the microplastic range, i.e. larger pieces of plastic that don’t biodegrade but fragment into smaller pieces over time, or microfibers that come off of synthetic materials such as fleece clothing.
“These issues raise questions about human health,” says Ms Jambeck. “We don’t know the full impact of plastic on humans but we know that plastic is being consumed by the tiniest animals in our food web all the way up to larger animals, and those food webs include us.”
What Can We Do?
The response to these issues
involve both individuals, corporations and governments, stresses Ms Jambeck. “Because population density is a huge driver of plastic waste, our individual choices matter,” she notes. “For example, if you use a reusable bottle, over a year how many plastic bottles have you saved? Over five years how many have you saved? It doesn’t seem like a lot on a day-to-day basis but those choices over time really matter. And if you and a million of your neighbours make those same choices, it can really have an impact.
“Of course, many people around the world do not have the luxury of making these choices. For example, in many places in Asia economic development has happened so rapidly that proper water management hasn’t been able to keep up. Commonly there is a lack of clean water infrastructure and that bottle of water may be the only way you can get clean water.
“That’s where industry can come to the table. Industry and corporations can help with the shared responsibility of managing their goods distribution and waste created from it. In fact, Norway has one of the strictest extended producer responsibility policies that I have heard of, the PET beverage bottle. The government creates incentives for companies to increase the rate of packaging returns.” Not just a Technical Issue
One of the main challenges to waste management on a global level is regional differences, according to Ms Jambeck.
“Waste management isn’t just a technical issue, it has cultural and social issues embedded as well,” she says. “Any effective waste management policy therefore must fit in with the local culture so that people will be accepting of it. Take for example the informal waste sector, which is expansive in many parts of Asia. This sector is made up of independent people who pick through the waste stream, sometimes through house-to-house collection, sometimes through trash cans in public spaces, and sometimes even from dumps or landfills. Their activity is not well quantified and they are not looked upon as contributing to society when in fact they are.
“If in your efforts to develop proper waste management systems in those areas you were to ignore informal waste sector, you could put thousands of people out of work, depending on what kind of solution you employ, or you could exacerbate the issues these people are already facing, such as working in poor conditions at best or horrific conditions at worst. So, thinking about solutions that could still incorporate these people but raise their recognition status and acknowledge them and their health and safety could be a good solution.” Not All Plastic is Created Equal
Another issue in many parts of Asia is a lack of awareness. “In places where natural materials have been used more recently and where plastic has only become an issue in recent years, managing waste on your property often meant sweeping natural materials into a pile and burning them. Once plastic becomes a part of that pile, it’s a problem but there is a lack of awareness of the impact of open burning of plastic,” Jambeck points out.
Then there is the issue of portion packaging. “High value plastic, like bottles, is often collected, but we see an increase in sachets and portion-size packaging such as individual servings of food or personal care products. As people’s economic status rises, they can afford to buy these things but they can’t afford to buy them in large quantities so people are buying lots of products in smaller serving containers which exacerbates the packaging problem. This kind of plastic is of such low value that no one wants to collect it so it ends up in the environment.
“The other thing is that in many places, including South East Asia, there is a lot of organic materials in the waste stream, such as food waste and green waste. But very few of these countries practice source separation so the recyclables get mixed with organic waste that is rotting, which makes it hard to get clean and valuable recyclables out of this mixed waste stream.” If Nothing is Done
According to Ms Jambeck and her colleagues’ research, the amount of plastic entering the oceans each year will double by 2025 if we continue with business as usual. With increasing population and increasing plastic consumption, it’s a dire picture.
But Ms Jambeck is optimistic. “One thing this problem has going for it is that it is tangible,” she says. “People can see it, they can see that the issue is there once they become aware of it. People agree that we don’t want plastic in the ocean. There are of course different perspectives and solutions to the problem but everyone agrees to that.”