Soooo my friend from the Ocean Conservancy sent me an article, which describes the assumptions I made in my last post re: plastic ocean debris remaining constant since the early 1990s, regardless of increased production, consumption, and disposal in the subsequent decades.
Real quick I think it is important to be transparent with my biases: I represent a plastics manufacture, so of course I am going to be looking at the tragedy of ocean debris from a different perspective; that is, one that looks to highlight the complexities involved and not scapegoat the problem onto an inanimate object, like plastic bags. That being said, I am a human, and one who is very emotionally tied to the state of the environment: Like you I hate seeing photos of decaying Albatrosses with plastic bits in their bodies; I hate the idea that the chemicals used in some plastics, like flexible PVC, may leach into our bodies and environment and have human health ecological consequences over time; and, I hate that plastics represent both our mastery over nature AND our materialistic, disposable culture. That being said, plastics exist in such prevalence in society because of their versatility and economics; the feedstocks of which are synthesized from “waste” products resulting from the oil refinery process. But before I get all hot to trot on my plastics crusade, I do want to emphasize that the TRUTH will always trump my predisposition to highlight plastics' positives. If I genuinely felt that plastics, as this blog would have it, are “…cheap, nasty and toxic,” I would find another job. My degree in Ethics and Social Justice has provided me with the tools to analyze all arguments, arriving at a conclusion supported by verifiable facts; consequently, I approach all the plastics hot-button topics, be it material health, ocean debris, it’s non-renewable feedstock, etc., with the same due diligence and attention to detail I would approach any academic inquiry.
Sorry for getting on my intellectual soapbox. I have just been bombarded as of recent with more of the same; that is, sensationalist blogs and press describing all humanity’s fate as contingent on the eradication of single-use, disposal plastic products.
SO let us turn our attention to one such sensationalist press, referenced in my last post. In this Plastics News article the reporter postulates that the study in question, (which I have yet to read), demonstrates substantially increasing concentration of plastics in the ocean due to the increase of plastic pieces discovered in seabirds. While the idea of sea-life ingesting plastic ocean debris is super depressing, what I find fault with is the statement that “The new data indicates a substantial increase in plastic pollution over the past few decades, according to the report.” And here is why:
As per the report Plastic Accumulation in the North
Atlantic Subtropical Gyre (www.sciencemag.org, Science Vol. 329, Sept. 3rd 2010), “Despite a rapid increase in plastic production and disposal during this time period [1986-2008], no trend in plastic concentration was observed in the region of highest accumulation” (Moret-Ferguson et al., p. 1185).
But let me back up a bit. Here are the parameters of the study:
• Study motivation: “Plastic marine pollution is a major environmental concern, yet a quantitative description of the scope of the problem in the ocean is lacking.”
• This study looks to “present a time series of plastic content at the surface of the western North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea from 1986-2008.”
• “More than 60% of 6136 surface plankton net tows collected buoyant plastic pieces, typically millimeters in size.”
• “The highest concentration of plastic debris was observed in subtropical latitudes and associated with the observed large-scale convergence of surface currents predicted by Ekman dynamics.”
And here is the Report’s main take-aways:
• “In the open ocean, the abundance, distribution, and temporal and spacial variability of plastic debris are poorly known, despite an increasing awareness of the problem.”
• “While the convergence acts to concentrate floating debris, the geographical origin of the debris cannot be easily determined from current patterns or from the recovered plastic samples themselves.”
• “Although the average concentration in this region did show a statistically increase from the 1990s to 2000s, this increase disappeared when concentrations greater than 200,000 pieces were removed.”
o “To address a potential sampling bias, the analysis was also performed with data from the most spatially consistent, annually repeatable cruise track from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. In this case, a weak but not statistically significant decreasing trend was observed in the high plastic concentration region.”
• “Although the nonuniform sampling in this data set cannot resolve short spatial or temporal scale variability, no robust trend was observed in the broadest region of plastic accumulation on interannual time scales and longer.”
• “Although no direct estimates of plastic input in the ocean exists, the increase in global production of plastic materials [fivefold increase from 1976 to 2008] together with the increase in discarded plastics in the MSW stream suggest that the land-based source of plastic into the ocean increased during the study period. Ocean-based sources may have decreased in response to international regulations prohibiting dumping of plastic at sea.”
• “Industrial raw pellets, the ‘raw material’ of consumer plastic products, are an additional source of plastic in the ocean. In 1991, in response to an EPA study, the plastics industries voluntarily instituted a program to prevent or recapture spilled pellets. Between 1986 and 2008, we observed a statistically significant decrease in the average concentration of resin pellets in the entire region sampled…This trend suggests that efforts to reduce plastic input at a land-based source may be measurable effective.”
• “The fate of plastic particles that become dense enough to sink below the sea surface is unknown, and we are unaware of any studies of seafloor microplastics offshore of the continental shelf. However, analysis of particular trap data in the center of the high plastic region near Bermuda shows no evidence of plastic as a substantial contributor to sinking material at depths of 500 to 3200 m.”
• “A study of plastic microdebris in waters from the British Isles to Island revealed a statistically significant increase in plastic abundance from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s. However, similar to this study, no significant increase was observed between the later decades despite a large increase in plastic production and disposal.”
I URGE you to read the article in its entirety; download it here.
Science Magazine, Vol 3, Sept 3rd, 2010
So what does all this mean? It means there is no floating plastic island the size of Texas; it means we have limited insight into the amount of plastics in the ocean, how it got there, and where it goes, aside from marine ingestion and the buoyant pieces observed in the studies above. It means that plastics in the ocean could be in large part the result of plastic dumping at sea, which became illegal in the early 1990s. It means that the plastics industry has been proactive with this issue, implementing a program that dramatically reduced the amount of plastic pellets observed in the ocean. And, it means that CONSUMERS continue to scapegoat their irresponsible behavior i.e. littering, on the mythical plastic beast, without which, most of the conveniences we have come to depend on, wouldn’t exist.
Check out this Real Clear Science article, which was published a couple days after this post; it is in dialogue with all the same themes discussed above.