By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)– “a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii”– is growing at a greater rate than previously predicted, according to Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic a scientific a paper published last week by Scientific Reports. The study estimates the size of the GPGP at 79,000 tonnes, a figure that is four to sixteen times higher than previous estimates.
First discovered in 1997, this floating collection of plastic and other debris is more than three times the size of France and covers 617,800 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers). Before the three-year mapping operation discussed in this report was conducted, little detail was known about the size and contents of the GPGP.
According to National Geographic:
The study also found that fishing nets account for 46 percent of the trash, with the majority of the rest composed of other fishing industry gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, and baskets. Scientists estimate that 20 percent of the debris is from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
By contrast, microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass of the GPGP, but 94% of the estimated 1.8 (1.1–3.6) trillion pieces floating in the area, according to the report:
Global annual plastic consumption has now reached over 320 million tonnes with more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before. A significant amount of the produced material serves an ephemeral purpose and is rapidly converted into waste. A small portion may be recycled or incinerated while the majority will either be discarded into landfill or littered into natural environments, including the world’s oceans. While the introduction of synthetic fibres in fishing and aquaculture gear represented an important technological advance specifically for its persistence in the marine environment, accidental and deliberate gear losses became a major source of ocean plastic pollution3. Lost or discarded fishing nets known as ghostnets are of particular concern as they yield direct negative impacts on the economy4and marine habitats worldwide (citations omitted).
The report also emphasizes that the amount of plastic waste in the GPGP is growing, rather than diminishing:
Historical data from surface net tows (1970–2015) indicate that plastic pollution levels are increasing exponentially inside the GPGP, and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters. While this does not necessarily mean that the GPGP is the final resting place for ocean plastic reaching this region, it provides evidence that the plastic mass inflow is greater than the outflow. The degradation rate of synthetic polymers in the marine environment is poorly understood, but it is known to depend on local environmental conditions, polymer types, shape and coating of objects. The relatively high occurrence of macroplastics with production dates from the 70 s, 80 s, and 90 s compared to more recent debris suggest that specific types of plastic (i.e. with high volume-to-surface ratios and low windage) persist and accumulate in the GPGP region The mass of plastics floating in the GPGP was mostly distributed in macro- and megaplastics. It is difficult to estimate how long it will take for all the material currently present in the area to degrade in smaller pieces and eventually escape sea surface waters. Based on our modelling results, it seems the bulk mass of material currently present in the GPGP is very unlikely to leave the area and may slowly degrade into increasingly smaller pieces that can eventually either sink to the seafloor, or behave as water tracer due to its microscopic size and low Reynolds number (citations omitted).
Too Little, Too Late?
The sheer size of the GPGP is depressing, especially as world plastics production continues to increase. Indeed, as I wrote in a post at the start of the year, in Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis,fossil fuel companies are making major investments to increase, rather than reduce, the rate of plastic production. This is insane and is a situation that screams for some form of regulatory intervention– because market forces are clearly leading companies to make decisions that while seemingly good for the bottom line, look dire for the planet.
The European Union has taken on somewhat of a leadership role on waste management issues– especially when compared to the pathetic performance of the United States (and I don’t just mean the Trump administration here). Yet as I wrote in January in EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late? when the EU adopted its long-awaited, much ballyhooed European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy on January 16, “Unfortunately, the plastics strategy is a disappointment, relying too much on recycling rather than waste elimination and even within this narrow framework, endorsing all too feeble goals.”
Two initiatives announced this month to reduce plastic pollution have caught my eye. First, the state of Maharashtra– where Mumbai has located– earlier this month banned all single use plastics. More than 30% of India’s total plastic waste is generated by this state, which has now become the 18th Indian state to institute such a ban. This is supposed to include strict penalties, according to an account in Business Standard, Maharashtra bans plastic: Beverage, dairy firms plan new packaging plans. The most immediate effect of the ban has been on the use of plastic bags, with many retailers ceasing to use them and asking their customers to do the same.
But beyond plastic bags, for which alternatives are widely and easily available, more comprehensive plans to reduce or recycle plastic waste in Maharashtra are still being developed. And, while as is the case with any other plan of this sort– and particularly in India, where indifferent or inadequate enforcement often stymies what appear to be sensible initiatives– the devil is in the details.
Business Standard reports:
The dairy and beverage companies have been given around three months to come up with an alternative packaging plan or set up recycling plants to reduce plastic waste, the state government had indicated last week.
Much milk in India is sold in plastic bags– which I believe are typically not recycled:
Amul is ranked among the top pouch milk brands in the city. Some other pouch milk suppliers in Mumbai include Mother Dairy, Warana, Mahananda and Gokul. These companies were not immediately available for any comment.
India has already achieved 90% recycling rate for plastic water bottles and food containers made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), according to a February 2017 article in Hindustan Times, India recycles 90% of its PET waste, outperforms Japan, Europe and US: Study
Of the 900 kilo tonnes of PET made in India annually, 65% is recycled at registered facilities, 15% in the unorganised sector and 10% is reused at homes, states a yearlong study by scientists from Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – National Chemical Laboratory (NCL). The rest ends up at landfills. The recycling rate for PET in Japan is 72.1%, 48.3% in Europe and 31% in the US.
This Hindustan Times article also elaborates on how recycled PET is reused:
“We use a combination of site visits, interviews, literature survey for this study. The team has visited (and continues to visit) PET recycling units across the country. We identified large-scale industries that used discarded PET bottles to produce a variety of products and visited their recycling facilities to incorporate our data,” said Dr Magesh Nandgopal, scientist from NCL’s polymer science and engineering division who carried out the study along with Dr Ashish Lal, head of the division.
He added, “What is striking and not many people are aware that the entire Indian cricket team’s apparel for the 2015 world cup was made from recycled PET bottles. Even the their current jersey is made from this material.”
The scientists observed that PET bottles were collected, sorted, cleaned, shredded, and made into ‘washed flakes’. “These washed flakes are then used to make (predominantly) polyester fibre, which is used as filling material for cushions, pillows, and converted to fabrics for use in clothing, upholstery, etc.,” said Lal.
The study estimated that while the PET recycling business has a turnover of Rs3,500 crore in a given year in India, the end products sell at anywhere between Rs50-110 per kg. Discarded PET bottles fetch waste collectors Rs14-15 kg. These bottles are bought by kabadiwallahs (scrap dealers) or waste traders, who employ people to segregate, sort and further sell it to large vendors or recyclers.
Firms that sell bottled water and other bottled beverages throughout Maharashtra are now expected to ramp up further recycling initiatives for PET bottles, as the Business Standard reports:
In contrast, beverage firms such as Bisleri International have polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling initiatives running in Mumbai. These will be implemented on a wider scale, company officials said.
Coca-Cola India said it was reviewing the matter, while PepsiCo said it was working with the Packaging Association of Clean Environment to promote recycling of PET.
By contrast, the UK currently recycles less than 60% of its plastic bottles– although the Daily Mail recently reported that Environment Secretary Michael Gove expects soon to introduce a deposit scheme to increase recycling, to include reverse vending machines for depositing used bottles. This scheme might be based on a Norwegian program that has led to 97% of bottles being recycled, as reported by the BBC in UK ‘could adopt’ Norway bottle recycling system. So, if India and Norway can recycle at least 90% of their plastic bottles, using very different waste collection and management systems, why not the UK?
Cleaning Up the GPGP– and Other Ocean Waste
Obviously, drastically reducing the use of plastics, and recycling much of all plastics generated, going forward, is desirable. But these measures are no panacea.
Nor will these measures in any way shrink the GDGP. At best, they can slow the rate at which it continues to grow. So, what about cleaning up the mess that already exists?
The study released last week is just one step toward tackling this problem. As reported by NBC:
“To solve a problem, we need to understand it first,” said Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, the non-profit organization that led the research initiative. “There’s a good part to it and a bad part to it. The bad part is that there is more [trash and plastic] than what we thought. But the good part is that most of the plastic is still large object. Just 8 percent of the plastic is micropastic. It’s not too late to do something about it.”
ABC reports that the NGO Ocean Cleanup will launch a program to clean up ocean waste within the next twelve months– two years ahead of schedule– using technologies it has developed. Ocean waste will be encircled by a barrier, which will then be transported back to land to be recycled. The NGO claims that full deployment of its systems would clean up 50% the GPGP in five years (Further discussion of this initiative is beyond the scope of this post.)
Whether this is a feasible strategy or for that matter, whether Ocean Cleanup’s claims are valid, I don’t know. But even if the new system exceeds anyone’s wildest expectations for its success, it’s only one necessary part of cleaning up the oceans, where plastic and other forms of pollution have damaged aquatic life– perhaps irreparably (see, for example, this January piece, where I discussed another recent study that documented the damage done by plastics to coal reefs, in Plastics Sicken Coral Reefs).