Plastics are... "cheap, nasty, and toxic" HA! Investigation into plastic ocean debris

Posted by Chandler Slavin on Oct 18, 2012 10:12:00 AM

Hey guys,

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
(, 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.

And scene.

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.

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The Truth about Ocean Debris

Posted by Chandler Slavin on Oct 16, 2012 5:48:00 PM

Hiiiii! Happy Monday funday!

I am writing you from the halted Metra—crazy weather in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago has rendered all Union Pacific rail travel stopped!

Today I am going to summarize the findings presented in the cumulative study on ocean debris as per the Ocean Conservancy’s “Talking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean.”

First, some background on the report:

Over the last 25 years, volunteers from around the world have participated in versions of “International Coastal Cleanup (hereafter, ICC),” which is a grass-roots mobilization that cleans coastal beaches and inland waterways of debris and trash and characterizes said trash in publically available data-entry cards. The Ocean Conservancy explains,

“Over the past 25 years, Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup has become the world’s largest volunteer effort for ocean health. Nearly nine million volunteers from 152 countries and locations have cleaned 145 million pounds of trash from the shores of lakes, streams, rivers, and the ocean on just one day each year. They have recorded every item found, giving us a clean picture of he manufactured items impacting the health of humans, wildlife, and economies. “

These data management cards characterize the debris by trash type (material like plastic or object like fishing net), frequency, geography, etc. allowing organizations like the Ocean Conservancy and its partners to gain better insight into the true extent of ocean debris; this insight has facilitated the development of industry initiatives and policy aimed at reducing the amount of garbage in the ocean.

In total, volunteers have recorded 166,144,420 items since the first Coastal Cleanup campaign 25 years ago via the standardized data card. 43 items commonly found are tallied, as are “weird finds” like suitcases and toilets; the data are published annually in the Ocean Trash Index. To assess the long-term trends in the Cleanup the Ocean Conservancy engaged Applied Marine Science Inc. to evaluate the 25-yearl data set using sophisticated statistical methods.

Called “an invaluable snapshot of ocean trash” (Vikki Sprull, President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy), these efforts pioneered by the global grassroots community and crystallized by statistical analysis have revealed the following about the state of ocean debris:

Top ten items over 25 years (these item categories comprises 80% of ocean debris collected):

1. Cigarettes/filters—32% of recorded debris (52,907,756 item count)
2. Food wrappers/containers—9% of recorded debris (14,766,533 item count)
3. Caps/lids—8%
4. Cups/plates/forks/knives/spoons—6%
5. Beverage bottles (plastic)—6%
6. Bags (plastic)—5%
7. Beverage bottles (glass)—4%
8. Beverage cans—4%
9. Straws/stirrers—4%
10. Rope—2%

The debris is also characterized by generation per source i.e. item count per human activity. The main sources of generation include:

1. Shoreline and recreational activities (86,482,443 item count)
2. Smoking-related activities (59,411,778 item count)
3. Ocean/waterway activities (13,249,455 item count)
4. Dumping activities (4,556,591 item count)
5. Medical/personal hygiene (2,444,153 item count)

The 25-year top ten participating countries include:

1. US (3,618,462 volunteers)
*California residents comprise almost one-third of all US volunteers)
2. Philippines (2,907,608 volunteers)
3. Canada (251, 141 volunteers)
4. Japan (227,762 volunteers)
5. Venezuela (187,027 volunteers)
6. Brazil (134,701)
7. South Africa (106,253)
8. India (104, 443)
9. Puerto Rico (86,915)
10. Panama (85,600)

The 25-year top ten participating states:

1. California (1,076,344 volunteers)
2. Florida (563,380)
3. North Carolina (341, 937)
4. Texas (256,824)
5. New York (181,791)
6. South Carolina (106,987)
7. Georgia (101,827)
8. Hawaii (92,755)
9. Oregon (84,695)
10. Louisiana (75,490)

Weird finds:

• Firework debris at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Stadium left over from fireworks at baseball and football games
• As result of hurricane in Louisiana, Cleanup volunteers tallied whole cars, refrigerators still full, dining room tables with silverware, and “just about anything you could think of” (Vincent Attard, MALTA coordinator)
• A whole toilet 100 meters from the coast on the sea bed
• A dummy “rescued” from Chicago’s south side
• Canadian Cleanup volunteers have found everything needed for a wedding, “including a wedding dress, engagement ring, tuxedo, jacket, bow tie, wedding invitations, bride and groom cake topper, and veil” (Jill Dwyer, Canada Coordinator)
• Political flags, flyers and stickers promoting political parties (Alberto Marti, Puerto Rico coordinator)

Industry initiatives resulting from data collected via International Coastal Cleanup:

• Vacuum manufacturer Electrolux produces “Vacs from the Sea,” cleaners made of plastic debris collected around the globe; the goal is to raise awareness about the scarcity of high-quality recycled plastics and plastics pollution.
• In 1990 Cleanup data analysts found that many volunteers in the Gulf of Mexico reported finding blue plastic bags of Morton’s “Ship ‘n Shore” salt, used by commercial shrimpers to keep their catch fresh. Upon learning of the improper disposal of their product packaging, Morton encouraged people to take advantage of the option to purchase salt in paper bags that degrade quickly; and, Morton included “Don’t be a Litter Boat” and “Stow it, don’t throw it,” on their product packaging.
• When Cleanup volunteers find entangled wildlife, fishing line is the number-one culprit. Municipal recycling plants are not equipped to handle fishing line. Berkley—a leading supplier of fishing tackle—allows its customers to collect used line and send to facility in bulk; sine 1990, the Berkley Conservation Institute has recycled more than 9 million miles worth of fishing line.
• When Cleanup volunteers reported encountering marine animals entangled in six-pack holders, leading manufacturer ITW Hi-Cone decided to make a safer product, which consisted of switching to a photodegradable plastic in 1988 (I don’t know the success of this material substitution).

Policy/legislation enacted as result of data collected via International Coastal Cleanup:

• In 1987 Ocean Conservancy published one of the first studies to identify plastics as a significant threat to the ocean, “Plastics in the Ocean: More than a Litter Problem.” Data referenced in the report helped illuminate the problem for the US Congress, which resulted in enforced restrictions against dumping trash items at sea by adopting Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as MARPOL 73/78 Annex V.
• Municipal governments in Nicaragua have increased the number of garbage receptacles on the beaches and collect them with more frequency.
• Cleanup data informed passage of the 2006 Marine Debris Research, Reduction, and Prevention Act, as well as California’s state marine debris action plan.
• Volunteers in Muskegon, Michigan, led a successful campaign (using Cleanup data) to ban smoking on beaches county-wide; in late 2008 the Chicago Park District enacted a change to its beach-use policy that prohibited smoking and discarding of smoking items on all of Chicago’s beaches.
• Laws prohibiting mass balloon releases (1991 Virginia General Assembly passed a law prohibiting mass balloon releases and other states followed).
• Laws encouraging re-usable bags (Washington, DC “Skip the Bag, Save the River” campaign, which educated residents about the new five-cent bag fee on single use shopping bags; a 2008 law in China made it illegal for stores to give away plastic bags; California enacted a 10-cent fee on disposable bags in Los Angeles county; Ireland’s 2002 shopping bag levy reduced bag use by 90%; On January 1st 2011, Italy became the first country to ban plastic single-use shopping bags nationwide).

Visit for more information.

I will let you marinate on these factoids for today; in tomorrow’s post I will provide some commentary in regards to this information.

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"Making a Sea Change" panel discussion takeaways

Posted by Chandler Slavin on Oct 16, 2012 5:46:00 PM


Today I am going to talk about the panel discussion from the SPC meeting in March that detailed the realities of ocean debris. Titled “Making a Sea Change,” the panel consisted of a research associate from the Sea Education Association, the president of the Ocean Conservancy, and a representative from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sooooo I went through my notes from the panel and what follows are the main points of interest. Please note, however, that as a representative of a plastics manufacturer, I was very interested in the reality of plastics in the ocean; hence, my takeaways may not be a holistic representation of the entire discussion.

In my next post I will discuss the findings presented in “Tracking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean,” which discusses the findings from 25 years of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Costal Cleanup campaign.

Notes from “Making a Sea Change” panel discussion, March 30th, San Diego, CA:

• Municipalities were allowed to dump garbage into the ocean until the early nineties (1991 US EPA ruled illegal). There was a grace period of policy implementation and execution, however, that allowed dumping to continue into the early-mid nineties. It is assumed that this lack of environmental protection policy and enforcement has resulted in what is commonly referred to as “the garbage patch,” which are areas of marine debris concentration in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. However, there is no way to “prove” that dumping trash into the ocean created today’s garbage patches because no research was conducted on trash in the ocean until AFTER municipalities stopped dumping; hence, the baseline off which progress is gauged re: marine debris, is that following extensive periods of municipal dumping.
• Contrary to popular belief, the “garbage patch” isn’t some floating island of garbage; it is more properly conceived of as a garbage soup consisting of small bits of floatable synthetics, which makes its cleanup so difficult. Even more difficult, the “garbage soup” moves around the ocean and the concentration of debris is never consistent; this results in further complications with its investigation and understanding.
• In 1991, in response to the amount of plastic pellets founds in the ocean, the plastics industry launched “Operation Clean Sweep,” which was a campaign in support of zero-pellet loss through pellet retention and management. After the launch of this industry-initiated effort, the amount of plastic pellets in the ocean decreased 90%, which is one of the most successful ocean debris clean up campaigns to date.
• As per the last 25 years of research, it was found that the amount of plastics in the ocean has not increased; this implies that while the consumption of plastics has increased, its irresponsible end of life management has not.
• 60%-80% of trash in the ocean comes from land.
o This statistic confused me because it suggests that the origin of marine debris is the irresponsible end of life management of synthetic materials, while I was under the impression that ocean dumping was the main genesis of ocean debris. When I asked the panel, they said that couldn’t say for certain where the garbage is coming from (land vs. trash dumping prior to early-mid nineties).
• In a nut shell, while the research conducted over the last 25 years does catalogue the types of marine debris found, which is crucial to understanding the problem of marine debris, it does not provide insight into the following:
o How much ocean debris exists
o Where the ocean debris comes from
o How it accumulates in patches
• Trends to consider that provide insight into genesis of ocean debris: dumping trash in the ocean; and, increased global consumption of goods and services paired with immature waste management infrastructures.
• By cataloguing the types of ocean debris found via Coastal Cleanup the last 25 years, the following was determined:
o Cigarette butts make up 33% of ocean debris, the highest concentration of debris by type. In 25 years worth of research, 52,907,756 cigarette butts were found and catalogued.
o Single-use plastic shopping bags are one of the top items found by Cleanup volunteers; in 25 years of research, 7,825,319 plastic bags were found and catalogued.
o Balloons makeup another large part of ocean debris, as in 25 years of research, 1,248,892 balloons were found and catalogued.

The information above is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the reality of ocean debris. Next week’s post will discuss, in detail, the findings of the Ocean Conservancy’s Coastal Cleanup campaign.

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