This March, I spent a week in San Diego, CA with about 700 people talking about trash. Primarily the talk was about trash in the ocean. Most of the conversations centered around plastic. I was attending the 6th International Marine Debris Conference, which was organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United Nations Environment Programme.
What has changed since the last marine debris conference?
The 5th IMDC was held in 2011. Since that time, there has been an increasing awareness and concern about microplastic pollution. Microplastics, defined as plastic items that are smaller than 5 mm in size, were barely on the radar screen in 2011. Today, we know that they can be found around the globe. They are present at all depths of the ocean, in water and in sediment. They are also found in the digestive tracts of many marine and freshwater animals.
What we do not know is how microplastics affect organisms in the natural environment. This is the focus of many current research projects. Also unknown is the potential impact of microplastics on people. One concern is that petroleum-based plastics contain chemicals that can leach out of the plastic and into organisms. Some of these chemicals are suspected to be endocrine disruptors. These could potentially impact reproductive success or embryonic development.
A focus on source reduction
Many of the sessions that I attended were focused on trying to reduce the amount of single-use plastic items. These range from plastic shopping bags and beverage bottles to cigarette filters and dryer sheets. I learned that 80% of land-based marin
e debris is urban runoff—primarily to-go food and beverage packaging, plastic bags and cigarette butts. 26-40% of all plastic produced is packaging. Half of plastic packaging is single use/disposable and one third of plastic packaging ends up in the environment.
Cigarette butts are the most frequently collected items in the annual International Coastal Cleanup. Many people do not realize that they contain plastic fibers and do not biodegrade. Cigarette butts are more likely to be discarded improperly than other types of trash. Proposed solutions range from removing filters from cigarettes (filters do not reduce the health risks of smoking) to providing smokers with portable “trash pouches.”
Changing the way we do things
I learned about the “Ocean Friendly Restaurant” program that Surfrider has developed. Restaurants that participate in this program must comply with four criteria and can choose three out of six optional criteria. The criteria and process for obtaining the certification can be found here. Restaurants can apply for or be nominated for this designation. There is an annual fee.
In Australia, the Plastic-free July campaign has been going on for several years. Participants can collaborate and share ideas through “plastics anonymous” meetings. The website has lots of resources and suggestions.
What about recycling?
We heard again and again that plastic recycling is not the answer. A representative from the American Chemistry Council used the analogy that recycling plastic is a bit like trying to turn an omelet back into its original ingredients. The best hope for the future may be PHA plastics, which are made from bacterial waste and are truly biodegradable. Currently, it is feasible to make PHA, but not yet in the quantities that will be needed to replace petroleum-based plastics. “Compostable plastic,” often made from corn starch, is a type of plastic referred to as PLA. PLA plastics require commercial (high heat) composting facilities to degrade. These facilities are not available in Florida. Without the commercial composting, PLA plastics will last for at least several decades in a landfill setting.