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The Ocean is Drowning in Plastic. What Are Our Alternatives?


WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

The Oceans are Drowning in Plastic - By 2050 Plastic will Outweigh Fish.

There’s no question: plastics in our oceans are causing major problems. From vast fields of debris floating in the middle of the ocean, to litter on coastlines and beaches, to microplastics that threaten our sealife, the issue is a growing problem on a global scale. But there are things you can do right now - today - to help stop this problem at its source. Read on for all the details.

If you’ve not heard about the vast seabourne garbage patches called gyres, you really should check into them. The stunning size of these gyres is overwhelming to say the least. They’re areas of the ocean where plastics and other non-biodegradable garbage congregate due to the movement of currents and wind. The term ‘garbage patch’ is actually a bit of a misnomer, as it conjures up images of a large floating garbage dump in the seas, but the reality is that you can sail right through a gyre and never notice it.

That’s because of microplastics. While plastic does not biodegrade, it does degrade. And that’s much scarier. When exposed to the heat of the sun and the movement of ocean waves over periods of time, the plastic does begin to break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Sounds like a good thing, right? Wrong.

Microplastics are defined as particles less than 5mm long, or about the size of a sesame seed. These tiny grains of plastic then are ingested by marine life, or become a part of their environment. It’s currently estimated about 25% of fish, 90% of marine birds, and 30% of turtles have ingested plastics. Studies found plastics in the digestive systems of shellfish as well. In addition to making them feel full without providing any nutrition, these plastics can leach toxins into their systems. This is a problem for humans as well as marine life since studies estimate that the average European seafood consumer now eats 11,000 microplastics per year…

Talk about a crisis!

Image Credit: Business Insider.

Plastics are Harmful to our Health.

In addition to being incredibly harmful to the environment, plastics have been shown to be bad for our health too.

The main issue is that plastics, and the chemicals they leech into our food and water, are endocrine disruptors. This means that they mimic the characteristics of estrogen in the body. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system suppression, and developmental issues in babies and children.

What’s even more troubling is that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) found about 95% of urine samples contain some amount of bisphenol A (or BPA), the chemical used in plastics manufacturing that is responsible for this effect.

In addition, there are a host of other toxins, many found in even BPA-free plastics, that are wreaking havoc on our collective health. Antimony, DEHP, styrene, BPS, VOCs, and many other chemicals can be found in items we use every day to store and handle food, as well as around the home.

It almost seems like this problem is impossible to escape!

Read on. There are ways you can limit and control your exposure, and help clean up the planet at the same time.


HOW DOES PLASTIC END UP IN THE OCEAN?

80% of ocean plastics come from land-based activities (The other 20% are from plastics littered by ships). It's from trash that is blown from streets, trash cans, landfills, or docks (as it's waiting to board ships) into rivers or directly into the seas. It also is from microplastics shed by products that use synthetic fibers, microbeads, or glitter (read on for more info...). Want to know more about how land-based plastic makes it to the ocean? Check out this mockumentary on plastic bags.

Think you're doing your part just by throwing your straw or plastic packaging into a trash or recycling bin? Think again. A large percentage of this waste is blown from these bins onto the ground, and ultimately into rivers and streams. The smaller the piece of waste (Think: straws), the more likely it is to be blown from a bin or landfill and end up in the ocean.


WHAT CAN WE DO?

(1) Clean up what’s already there.

There’s a lot of plastic in the world already. One of the first things we need to do is find a way to clean up what’s already there. Here are examples of some things we’re trying…

Bacteria: One of the biggest problems with plastics is that they’re generally not biodegradable. This means the natural methods of getting rid of waste (bacteria, fungus, and nature’s other clean-up crews) can’t break them into safe, environmentally-beneficial chemicals. It seems nature is beginning to catch up! Researchers at Kyoto University have isolated a form of bacteria that dines on PET (a common plastic used in bottles, clothing, and other consumer products). The team has isolated the enzyme used to digest the plastic, which may allow us to break down much of the plastic waste that currently clogs our waterways and landfills!

Mushrooms: One of the more fascinating processes we’ve seen is a type of fungus that can digest plastic to create a non-toxic and safe edible product. The Fungi Mutarium is an entire system designed to convert toxic plastic waste into tasty mushrooms. Converting harmful waste into food? Sounds like a win/win!

Caterpillars: If bacteria and mushrooms are too slow for you, how about caterpillars? A beekeeper in Spain noticed that wax worms were able to eat through plastic bags. It seems that rather than just chewing holes in the bags to get through to the other side, they were actually digesting the plastics! If we can isolate the enzymes these hungry little guys are using do digest plastic, it could mean a major breakthrough in cleaning up landfills.

Turn plastic into usable fuel: What if, instead of just getting rid of all the plastic, we could turn it into something useful? Using a process called cross-alkane metathesis, researchers have found a way to degrade the plastics in drinking bottles into usable fuels. In fact, they’ve developed a transportable version of this system that can be installed on large trucks or ships, allowing them to go to exactly where the problem lies. In fact, one company in the UK is already running a plant that can turn 2.4 tons of plastic waste into fuel per day! Further reading: New Atlas & Bloomberg.

Use plasma to turn plastic into gas to be reused: Plasma gasification is a technology that manages this amazing transformation without producing harmful (or any) emissions. Plasma-enhanced melters are already being used at facilities in Oregon, Michigan, Taiwan, Japan, and several other locations. They use extreme heat (we’re talking around 2,700 degrees) to deconstruct waste at a molecular level, creating ultra-clean syngas (synthesized gas), pure metals for recycling, and safe solid waste that can be processed into building materials and other environmentally-friendly uses.

Upcycle plastic into clothes or other products: Of course, one of the most common ways of dealing with plastic waste is to recycle it into brand new products. Some current uses that caught our eye are:

  • Houses: A company called EcoDomum is converting recycled plastics into large flat panels, which are then used to create affordable housing in Mexico. In addition to making use of the waste that otherwise litters the countryside, they’re helping to lift families out of extreme poverty with housing that is both functional and affordable.
  • Shoes: Sportswear behemoth Adidas has teamed up with Parley for the Oceans to create a line of athletic shoes and high-performance sportswear made from recycled plastics. Eventually, Adidas is planning to phase out the use of virgin (non-recycled) plastics in their products entirely, but for now look for options with the Parley name where ever you buy high end sports gear.
  • Clothes - Patagonia upcycles used soda bottles, unusable manufacturing waste, and worn-out garments (including their own) into polyester that they use to produce their clothes. This lessens their dependence on petroleum, curbs waste and toxic emissions from incinerators, promotes new reuse streams for polyester clothing that’s no longer wearable, and causes less pollution compared to using non-recycled polyester. Patagonia was one of the first brands to do this, however many other brands are jumping on board today.
  • Plastic Roads - A European group is using plastic to construct roads that are supposed to last three times as long as traditional roads, reduce construction time by 70%, and be 100% circular since it’s made entirely from recycled plastic.

The Ocean Cleanup - Autonomous and energy neutral systems designed to extract plastics (and other garbage) from the areas of the ocean where currents naturally place them. The garbage will then be shipped to land to be recycled into new consumer products.

SeaBins: a bucket designed by surfers in Australia can suck plastic, other debris, and oil out of the ocean.

4Ocean Cleanup Efforts: Each purchase of a 4Ocean bracelet (which is made from 100% recycled materials) funds 4Ocean to remove and repurpose one pound of trash from our oceans. Plus, each bracelet purchased in the month of February 2018 offsets -220.5 pounds of CO2e in the atmosphere!

(2) Reduce Your Plastic Use & Microwaste.

One of the #1 things you can do as an individual consumer is to use less single-use plastic, since chip bags, packaging, and plastic bottles are a large part of the problem. Here are some easy things you can do to help each day:

  • Get your drinks in a reusable cup, and try to buy as bottled plastic drinks as possible. If you must buy water, try buying from Flow, which packages water in an environmentally-friendly box that’s 100% recyclable and made from 70% renewable resources.
  • Say no to disposable silverware and napkins with takeout.
  • Join the #stopsucking movement by asking for no straw with your drink.
  • Use reusable grocery bags and produce bags.
  • Don’t buy bottled water and limit the amount of other plastic bottles you buy (for example, buy Oberweis milk and exchange the glass bottle each time you purchase a new bottle).
  • Buy from stores that use minimal or no plastic packaging (Example: Lush).
  • Be bold and make it known to stores that you don’t want plastic. Ask to have your drink without a straw before they bring it. If they give you one anyway, express your disappointment. Ask if they have products without plastic packaging. Refuse plastic bags. The more of us that draw attention, the more conscientious organizations will become.

Our clothing is a major contributor to microwaste since all clothes - especially cheap, low-quality clothes from brands like H&M, Old Navy, Forever 21, etc. - shed tiny particles of plastic each time they’re washed. This plastic ends up in our water supply and oceans, and leads to the gyres you read about earlier, plus a host of other issues. A few things you can do to reduce your clothing’s microwaste shed are:

  • Buy higher-quality clothing. Look up the environmental footprint of the brands you buy from. None are perfect, but some are tremendously better than others. A few that stand out in our minds as environmentally-conscious are Pact, SmartWool, Patagonia, Columbia, North Face, Osprey, REI, New Balance, Cotopaxi, and many more that aren’t listed here. Want to know more about the environmental impact of these brands? Start with this article. A simple Google search will yield a number of smaller brands that are environmentally-friendly as well, but if you need help getting started, click here.
  • Check out GUPPYFRIEND micro-waste reducer bags. These are essentially delicates bag that also happen to catch microwaste, thus preventing it from entering our water supply. For Americans, it’s easiest to buy these from Patagonia. If you want more info, head to our blog where we review GUPPYFRIEND and other sustainable laundry alternatives.

Sadly, glitter is another major contributor to microwaste. The oceans will thank you if you either give up glitter, or start using an alternative that isn’t plastic based, such as Eco Stardust, Eco Glitter Fun, or Glitter Evolution.

(3) Recycle Your Plastic.

91% of plastic is not recycled (!!!!). This should make you really angry. Ask your city to start offering recycling (Miami, FL, for example, either doesn’t recycle or makes it really difficult to recycle. Ask them to change this), and make the extra effort to ensure all recyclable plastic you use makes it to a blue bin. This is the absolute least you can do.

(4) Support Plastic Alternatives.

We vote with our dollars. We need to support companies and products that are offering alternatives to plastic packaging (even if they cost a small premium). This is how we can show that we care and want plastic alternatives to be more readily available, which will ultimately drive down the price. We are up against a lot of deep-seeded interests who don’t want to change, and a culture that allows people to choose not to believe science that is inconvenient to their lifestyles, so we must go out of our way to force the change.

Here are some promising alternatives to plastic:

  • Disposable palm leaf and wood food service products.
  • Silicon reusable food storage bags.
  • Beeswrap alternative to plastic wrap, made from cotton and beeswax.
  • Plastics that are compostable or biodegradable deserve a mention as well. A simple Google search will reveal a number of plastic bags, containers, etc. that purport to be compostable or biodegradable. The issue with these currently is that they don’t biodegrade in a normal landfill, and aren’t usually compostable in home compost piles, so they aren’t very practical. However, we look forward to watching these evolve in coming years because they seem promising, even if not executed well currently.

(5) Research and Form your Own Opinions.

Your view on science, the negative effects humans have on our environment, and climate change should not be affected by your political party’s views. Political science is not science. It’s terrifying that we live in an age where - despite the ability to be more informed than ever - we often choose to disregard scientific evidence that is inconvenient to our lifestyles, or that is contradictory to our political party’s beliefs. You have the world’s knowledge at your fingertips. Watch documentaries, look at scientific journals online, reach out to experts and organizations, and determine what you believe. We (Lauren and Scott) oftentimes fall somewhere in between the two political extremes on every issue, which is why we rarely take others’ (often heavily biased) opinions as our own.

Want to learn more? Check out SLO Active's guide to plastic pollution. And, if you're in the market for swimwear or wetsuits, be sure to check out their products (launching soon!). SLO Active's mission is to help clean up earth’s oceans through selling sustainable, eco-friendly ocean wear and sharing their sales profits with their ocean-related partner charities who share our same goals. Their goal is to make a tangible difference to cleaning up our ocean with every eco wetsuit or bikini sold.