What lies beneath: The plastic pollution crisis and how we deal with it

With clear evidence that plastics have entered our drinking water and food, how can we combat a pollution problem that seems so intractable – particularly when vested interests continue to skew the debate?

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Credit: 5 Gyres

It’s not often that a news headline feels both shocking and utterly predictable at the same time, but that was the case in September when it was reported that plastic fibres had been found in tap water around the world.

The investigation by Orb Media, which was shared with the Guardian, revealed that 83% of samples globally were polluted with plastic. In the same week, new research was published about the widespread contamination of sea salt, which has been found to contain microplastics in studies in the US, Europe and China.

Such news is of course hugely alarming, confirming that humankind’s polluting impact on the world has reached the water supply and the food chain. Plastic pollution has become so pervasive that we are now consuming our own waste, with potentially catastrophic consequences for human health.

But these revelations also feel predictable because of the world we have created for ourselves, with its relentless drive for consumerism and economic growth at all costs. If the goal of industry is to create more and more products for consumption, there will of course be more and more waste entering the ecosystem.

The mass production of plastics is still relatively new, having only begun in earnest during the 1950s. Today we rely on plastic for everything, from bottled drinks, food containers and carrier bags to materials in our cars, clothes, phones and computers.

The UN environment agency, which met this week in Kenya to discuss the plastic pollution crisis, estimates that up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year, the equivalent of dumping one rubbish truck of plastic per minute into the seas.

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Waste fragments collected from the ocean by non-profit organisation 5 Gyres

This week’s meeting in Nairobi included the introduction of a new UN resolution that commits nations to a global effort to prevent plastic pollution from entering the oceans. While undoubtedly an important symbolic statement, the resolution is limited in its timetable and specific details, and is not legally binding.

Indeed in some ways it feels like a sticking plaster for a problem that appears to be rapidly escalating out of control. As the Guardian points out, recycling efforts are failing to keep pace with plastic production, which is expected to quadruple by 2050. Most plastic never fully biodegrades, instead remaining in the environment for hundreds of years. No wonder then that many campaigners now regard plastic pollution as a global menace akin to climate change.

The impact: short and long-term

So where do we go from here? Is the damage already done, and is there the political will to reconfigure the global economic system in a way that meaningfully, and quickly, reduces plastic pollution?

The effects of plastic pollution are complex, multifaceted and still not fully understood. Some studies have identified a link between exposure to chemicals from plastics and declining male fertility, but much more work is needed to fully understand how microplastic consumption is impacting human health.

At a marine level, plastic pollution has been linked to the decline of phytoplankton, one of the basic building blocks of oceanic life – a trend that could ultimately contribute to the breakdown of ecosystems upon which humans depend. Meanwhile UNESCO reports that plastic waste causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals per year.

Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and research director of The 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit organisation dedicated to tackling plastic pollution, believes the weight of evidence should compel governments and industry stakeholders to at least commit to minimising further harm.

Since it was founded in 2009, 5 Gyres has conducted research around the world, including a study that identified the prevalence of microbeads (tiny round microplastics used in personal care products) in the Great Lakes in North America, and others looking at microplastics within subtropical gyres (large-scale systems of wind-driven surface currents in the ocean).

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Credit: 5 Gyres

“The starting point should be to say that this contaminant has now gone global,” says Eriksen. “We’ve found microfibres and microplastics everywhere, by the trillions of particles we estimate, so why do we have to force ourselves to prove it’s a problem? On that scale you’ve just got to say hang on, let’s not do any more harm until we know what we’re dealing with.”

In addition to its research work, Los Angeles-based 5 Gyres runs education programmes and marine expeditions. Indeed the precursor to 5 Gyres was an expedition in which Eriksen and Anna Cummins, his co-founder and future wife, used 15,000 plastic bottles and an aeroplane fuselage to build the Junk Raft, a vessel on which Eriksen sailed for 88 days from California to Hawaii to raise awareness about plastic pollution. The voyage is the subject of a book – Junk Raft: An ocean voyage and a rising tide of activism to fight plastic pollution – published this year.

The responsibility vacuum

The expeditions have continued since, with 5 Gyres next year planning to sail through Indonesia’s Coral Triangle from Bali to Komodo to sample microplastics. Much of the organisation’s work has focused on the global nature of the plastic pollution challenge, including how the actions of developed economies impact on developing nations.

It notes for example, that while most marine plastic pollution comes from heavily populated countries with poor waste management systems such as China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, less attention is paid to the role of developed countries in exporting much of their waste to the developing world. In this way, 5 Gyres also regards plastic pollution as a social justice issue.

“You really can’t point to any one country because plastic trash is a commodity – it’s moving around,” says Eriksen. “The US exports roughly half of our plastic trash to other countries, so it’s kind of hard to point the finger at one country for having trash go down their rivers when we’re sending it across the oceans on shipping containers. It’s not very equitable.”

Indeed, 5 Gyres is trying to shine a light on the myth of recycling and point out that the vast majority of plastic that we put in recycle bins is never actually recycled. Research published earlier this year by the journal Science Advances found that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced by humankind, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Out of that waste, only 9% has been recycled.

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Marcus Eriksen, co-founder, The 5 Gyres Institute

Instead, the vast majority of plastic waste is simply moved around, often shipped off to the developing world for scrap and salvage. In an FAQ section on its website, 5 Gyres states: “In many of these countries, people – including children – become ‘waste pickers’, sorting through rivers of plastic trash to find pieces to sell while polluted waterways transport the remainder straight out to sea.”

A key aim of campaigners like Eriksen is to encourage the development of circular economies around the world, where resources and products are continually re-used to minimise waste and pollution. He highlights the work of the Mother Earth Foundation in the Philippines, for example, which has helped to set up decentralised MRFs (materials recovery facilities) where small communities are incentivised to create sustainable local economies using methods like recycling and composting.

He also highlights the role that technology could play in radically reducing plastic pollution, and some of the solutions that are already coming to market. “Why not have every bus stop have a solar-powered water purifier and refrigeration system?” he suggests.

“I have a friend who’s just invented one – it’s a small kiosk, solar-powered refrigerant that you just plug a tap and filter into and it turns out cold water. If you put that in bus stops around Jakarta for example, you wouldn’t need plastic bottles anymore. There are solutions out there.”

Taking on vested interests

But for all the talk of new economic and technological systems, there is also an urgent need to greatly reduce the amount of plastic in production. That requires big business to reform itself on an enormous scale by ending the production of many plastic products and by making the production of biodegradable, or easily recyclable alternatives, cost-effective. Therein lies the rub.

Some major consumer goods corporates like Unilever have already made big commitments on sustainability, but plenty of other companies around the world are pushing back against what they see as a major threat to their business models and future survival.

The BBC’s reports on the UN conference this week include allegations that journalists in certain African countries are being paid by the plastics industry to write scare stories about job losses due to new restrictions on plastic production.

Other corporates, avoiding such insidious methods, are instead championing the cause of using industrial incinerators to destroy plastic waste, which could in turn support energy recovery systems for generating power. However, this technology remains costly and is not widely used at present. Some environmentalists have also objected to its own potential polluting effects in releasing toxins – as well as to its role in continuing to encourage linear economies and a culture of continuous waste production.

“The starting point should be to say that this contaminant has now gone global – let’s not do any more harm until we know what we’re dealing with” Marcus Eriksen, The 5 Gyres Institute

In the US, meanwhile, President Trump’s proto-industrialist stance has led to the repeal of multiple environmental protections, heightening the risk of plastic pollution and other forms of environmental degradation. This includes the repeal of Obama-era clean water rules. At the UN conference this week, a stronger motion for international action was rejected after the US said it would not commit to any specific, internationally agreed goals.

“In the United States we have this idiot that’s going to unravel a lot of the progress made on circular economies and the balance between the economy, environmental health and social justice,” says Eriksen. “So we have to suffer through these next three years or less… you can guess my politics.”

But regardless of the malign influence of Trump and industrial lobbyists, there are some reasons for optimism. Most obviously, the issue of plastic pollution is now receiving more publicity than it has ever done before, resulting in better coordinated global efforts between both governments and NGOs.

As the BBC’s report from the UN conference in Kenya makes clear, a whole host of African nations have now implemented a near total ban on the use of plastic bags – a clear response to the devastating impact that discarded bags are having on the environment in these countries.

Kenya, which introduced a complete ban on plastic bags in August, is now encouraging the use of alternatives such as biodegradable baskets for selling and carrying fruit. Such measures signify the fact that once a situation reaches crisis point, there is often the will to bring about meaningful change.

“When I talk to the industry folks they get it, they see they’re up against a wall,” says Eriksen. “And most people want to do good – I have this confidence in the basic goodness of people. I think that once we see what the problems are, see what the sticking points are and where there is common ground, then you can begin to move forward.”

Yet government and corporate action can only go so far. The onus is undoubtedly on consumers, too. Certainly the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude of many people – the idea that waste is no longer our problem once we discard it – needs to change. That same waste is now returning in our tap water and our food, and destroying vital ecosystems.

Quite clearly it’s now a problem for all of us, and one we must tackle together with great urgency.

For more information on The 5 Gyres Institute click here

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