OCEAN DEBRIS: WHAT A MESS!
BY ROBERT BATEMAN, ROPLAST INDUSTRIES
I have been writing articles on marine debris for the WPA newsletter and its predecessor, the Die-Line, for over 10 years. At the WPA meeting last Tuesday, Dr. Patti Debenham, a consultant who has worked with the Ocean Conservancy for many years, gave us an update on the current state of scientific investigation into marine debris.
The questions I had in my mind before her talk were:
• What do we know now about the questions that puzzled us 10 years ago?
• What is the plastic industry contributing to the research?
• Are we any closer to the necessary international agreements which will be required for any real progress towards a solution? and
• Are there now decent, accepted scientific facts, as opposed to facts provided by committed advocates, that can be used to inform the political programs, including the single use bag bans and the meetings of the Committee of the Californian Legislature which is moving towards some form of producer responsibility? To the extent that Dr. Debenham dealt with these questions the information she gave was depressing, which is consistent with the knowledge I gain year by year.
The puzzling questions are:
• Where does the plastic debris come from and what is it?
• What are the small plastic pieces, emphasized by Algalita, made of and are they a potential health hazard as claimed by Algalita?
The answers to many other questions posed by environmentalists, such as the danger plastic bags pose to marine life (not significant), and the size of the gyres (large but fragmentary), have been known for a while but the environmentalists are winning the public relations campaign.
We did not learn much new regarding the origins of plastic debris in the seas. None of the good ideas suggested in Captain Charles Moore’s book, such as putting markers in resin so that the origin of items of debris could be established, seem to have been considered. So, it remains possible for a wide range of claims about the origins of plastic debris to be presented as valid.
There was some encouraging news about small particles, which are being studied by the Ocean Debris program of NCEAS. NCEAS is sponsored by UC Santa Barbara. It arranges collaborative programs on defined issues for scientists from around the world. The list of scientists studying the marine debris program is impressive, the program is funded for 3 years but they only meet a few times a year and progress is likely to be slow. NCEAS was established on the initiative of the Ocean Conservancy and Dr. Debenham played a major part in this. From what she said, the direction of the research suggests that micro particles are much less pervasive than suggested by the Algalita studies and that there is little or no research clarifying whether they do represent a danger to the food chain. The NOA 2008 Workshop in Tacoma, which many of the NCEAS study team attended, came to the same non-conclusions; progress is slow. The NCEAS program looks to be something that should be supported strongly by everyone interested in plastic marine debris.
Why does research in this area get so little support? A cynic might suggest that the risks of finding out the truth are high for both the environmentalists—the truth might not support their self-serving claims—and the plastic industry—many years ago a member of the APC Executive Committee told me that he thought that the support given to research into marine debris was so limited because the truth might be dangerous to the industry. From the perspective of T-shirt bag manufacturers in many parts of the world, particularly California, the present situation must be worse than anything to which the truth might lead. But then, the industry in general might not be too distressed to have the single-use bag as the target—as the data from Ireland shows, any reduction in single-use bags is offset by a more or less equivalent increase in the sale of kitchen trash bags.
So, did Dr Debenham give us any reason to suppose that the industry is being proactive in a practical way? No, is the short answer. While a number of marine-oriented NGOs are investigating marine debris, the resources involved and international co-ordination appear limited. Dr Debenham did not credit the plastic industry for any useful work or contribution to research. The only mention of “industry” involvement was Nestle’s support of ‘As You Sow’, an NGO promoting corporate responsibility which has a packaging program dealing with toxicity and extended producer responsibility in packaging (www.asyousow.org).
My own experience confirms this answer. A month or two ago I attended an ACC-sponsored webinar on marine debris. It turned out to be a primer on how to give ‘correct’ answers to threatening questions, such as how big is the gyre. The SPI Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) resin pellet program, that was adopted by many Californian converters 10 years ago, was presented as part of a solution to marine debris, as indeed it is—although without independent auditing it is unconvincing to environmentalists and actually me. I raised the question of independent OCS auditing at the webinar, but it was not answered nor, I suspect, its significance understood.
In fact, the number of pellets found in ocean debris has declined dramatically in the last 15 years as one of Dr. Debenham’s tables showed. It would be nice to think that it was because of the extra care taken by the industry including OCS and that may be part of the answer. Another reason may be that packing and handling methods for ocean shipping have changed. My neighbor suggested that the increased price of resin might be an influence. But whatever the reason, it is really good news. Captain Moore should take some credit.
Dr. Debenham had nothing to say about my third question regarding international agreements and, as far as I can tell, this is not on any agenda. There was a conference on ocean debris in Hawaii last year involving a range of interested parties from around the world including the resin suppliers, and a press release was issued proclaiming international co-operation. It looked like public relations and I have seen nothing since suggesting that that it was not. One day, something like the late lamented Larry Johnson’s idea that there should be a miniscule fee on every pound of resin sold worldwide, with the proceeds spent addressing the marine debris issue, will be adopted. It may not be too little but it will almost certainly be too late.
Finally, did we learn anything from Dr. Debenham, that could be used to inform the political discussions and proposals that face us in California? The answer to this is not yet. She did say that scientists had serious questions about the validity of the claims of Algalita, specifically the number of plastic pieces in relation to the number of natural organisms. But no serious, transparently independent scientist is challenging Algalita publicly. Why would they when Algalita is controlling the agenda and is the only organization devoted to plastic debris. It is interesting to read the information supplied to the ‘California Committee Formed on Marine Debris’ held on June 5, 2013 [click here for the report]. The old chestnuts are asserted. Extracts:
“…West Coast communities are spending approximately $13 per resident a year to combat and clean up trash, much of which would otherwise end up as marine debris … then these West Coast communities are spending more than $520,000,000 … each year to combat litter and curtail marine debris”
“…The United Nations Environment Program has declared plastic marine debris and its ability to transport toxic substances one of the emerging issues in our global environment.”
All the evidence suggests that most plastic trash in the Pacific comes from Asia and that this trash gets to California. As Dr. Debenham explained, the jury is still out on the extent and role of small plastic particles despite Algalita claims. I doubt that the legislators are aware of these views.
So, what grade should be given to the industry for its handling of the ocean debris issue in the 11 years since Captain Moore spoke to the CFECA meeting? Not high. During those years, CFECA and WPA has sent letters, arranged meetings, sponsored conferences and suggested proactive steps that could be taken. I am not sure that anyone in the companies and organizations with the money, power and influence in the industry has even taken us seriously. For now, it is the single - use bag industry that is paying the price, particularly in California. But that is just the start unless leaders in the industry decide to get involved and do what is needed and right.