Thursday, March 19, 2015

Waves of Waste: What’s Floating in Your Ocean?

A new study assembled from data from 192 countries and published in the journal Science in February 2015 found that over a quarter of a million tons of plastic waste have impacted the world’s oceans. To obtain the data, scientists from four continents fished for plastic for 6 years to secure their data. “A minimum of 5.25 trillion [plastic] particles weighing 268,940 tons,” are currently floating around our oceans, researchers say. To arrive at the estimate they carried out 24 expeditions around the globe between 2007 and 2013, whereby they collected plastic debris using mesh nets and visually estimating the volume of floating waste.

Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia studied the sources of ocean-bound plastic and developed models to estimate their annual contributions worldwide. Her study states: “Plastic debris in the marine environment is widely documented, but the quantity of plastic entering the ocean from waste generated on land is unknown. By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, we estimated the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. We calculate that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean.” That is a staggering number. According to researchers population size and the quality of waste management systems inherent to each country, or rather lack thereof, largely determined which countries contributed the greatest amount of un-captured waste. “Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025,” Jambeck writes. China was responsible for 28% of the total, followed by Indonesia with 10%. All of the other main offenders were middle to low-income countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria and Bangladesh, with the United States ranked 20th. Yes, the U.S. was the only large “wealthy” country to land on the top 20 list. Plastics are a re-usable resource and ironically recycling rates are up across the globe.

Until now, researchers didn't have a concrete idea of the amount of plastic that makes its way from land to the sea annually. It was believed about 270,000 tons of plastic waste were floating in our oceans. This didn't take into account the waste that had already sunk to the depths of the ocean floor, however. “So the cumulative input by 2025 would equal 155 million metric tons,” Jambeck writes. According to researchers, un-captured waste (trash that is littered or lost from waste management systems) is the biggest source of ocean-bound plastic debris in the world. “Our mismanaged waste is a function of both inadequate management - open dumping, for example - and litter,” Jambeck said. “This mismanaged waste goes uncaptured, meaning that it then becomes available to enter marine environments.” According to the researchers’ models, a country's population size and the quality of its waste management systems stand for the amount of mismanaged waste that it generates. “We need to make sure that we are collecting and capturing solid waste and plastic around the world,” says Jambeck. And yet clearly, too much easily recyclable waste is falling through the cracks.

“There's much more plastic pollution out there than recent estimates suggest,” Marcus Eriksen, research director for the Los Angeles-based 5 Gyres Institute says. “It's everything you can imagine made of plastic. It's like Walmart or Target set afloat.” But plastic takes into account a myriad number of products, so I was curious what exactly it meant and contacted NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and spoke with Communications Specialist Dianna Parker, who broke down the types of plastics identified in our oceans: Polyethylene terephthalate, as in plastic soda and water bottles, and polyethylene as in plastic bags. You might expect those two, but the other categories are surprising and just as problematic: PVC - as in plastic construction tubing; polypropylene as in drinking straws; polyamide, as in toothbrushes; and polystyrene – those white take out food containers we’ve probably all used and discarded, and plastic wrappers. The obvious question is what are the percentages of these types of plastics found in the ocean? “We count common items, such as cigar tips and plastic bottles; and we separate plastic fragments into foam, film, and hard plastic,” Ms. Parker told me. “While there is some sophisticated instrumentation available to determine the polymer type of these materials, we find that it is not cost effective to add on this component to monitoring efforts,” she said, therefore it’s hard to get specific information about the amounts of different plastic in the ocean. Additionally according to NOAA, marine debris can injure and kill marine life and poses a threat to human health. “Our oceans and waterways are polluted with a wide variety of marine debris ranging from soda cans and plastic bags to derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels,” NOAA says, and they define marine debris as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment.” Sadly, plastic appears to be spreading faster than previously thought. Although the waste comes mainly from the northern hemisphere, oceans in the southern hemisphere are almost equally polluted, the study says.

Whether we understand the life chain or not, the health of our oceans are of paramount importance. We are in desperate need to make certain that our rivers, streams and anything that feeds into the ocean is clean. We are failing…obviously. Many people don’t care, or cannot (rather will not) make the connection between the ocean and our own human health. These are the people who need a serious dose of education. Everything in life is connected. If my child is sick, it affects my life. If my neighbor’s house is broken into it impacts me. If my state passes laws I don’t agree with it has an influence on my family. If another country threatens us, you bet it is important. So then, how much more are our waterways connected and integral to our health and survival as individuals and as a global population? If we continue to do nothing, we will find out.

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