What Can I Do About Marine Plastic Pollution?
Packaging (and Business and Personal) Strategies to Help Address the Crisis
Marine plastic pollution is the environmental topic of the year, and rightfully so. It is hard to see images of marine pollution and not worry about our souls as citizens of the world and the havoc we are wreaking on the planet.
What is marine plastic pollution?
Over eight million metric tons of plastic trash are estimated to end up in the ocean each year. Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia environmental engineer, likens it to lining up five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline around the globe.
At current pollution rates, the ocean will contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050.
This plastic is harmful to oceans and marine life in countless ways.
For example, fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, leading to intestinal injury and death (not to mention how this transfers plastic waste up the food chain). A quarter of the fish at California markets have plastic in their guts (largely microfibers). Some research indicates that half of sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic.
Thousands of seabirds ingest plastic every year. Plastic ingestion reduces the storage volume of the stomach, signaling to birds that they are full and leading them to consume less food and starve. An estimated 60 percent of all seabird species have eaten pieces of plastic, with that number predicted to increase to 99 percent by 2050. Marine mammals also ingest and get tangled in plastic. Plastic debris is rampant in the habitat of endangered Hawaiian monk seals and their recovery efforts are being undermined by entanglement deaths.
In 2010, a California grey whale washed up dead on the shores of the Puget Sound. Autopsies indicated that its stomach contained a pair of pants and a golf ball, more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves.
Though they occupy less than one percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs are home to more than twenty-five percent of marine life. A new study based on four years of diving on 159 reefs in the Pacific shows that reefs in four countries — Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar — are heavily contaminated with plastic, increasing the likelihood of disease in the coral 4 to 89 percent.
The impact of this marine pollution on humans hasn’t been fully studied yet, but given that the ocean is the source of and home to much of the air, water and food that humans consume, most experts agree that there are likely to be dire consequences of this pollution on human health.
What does marine plastic pollution consist of?
Of all pollution floating at the ocean’s surface, 90% is plastic. Various studies of beach litter clean ups have attempted to identify the most common items found in the ocean.
The following list was generated during the 2011 International Coastal Cleanup, when volunteers across multiple countries kept a tally of the top 10 items they found, which collectively made up 80% of the waste picked up:
- Caps and lids
- Beverage bottles
- Plastic two handled grocery bags
- Food wrappers and containers
- Cups, plates, knives, spoons and forks
- Glass beverage bottles
- Straws, stirrers
- Beverage cans
- Paper bags
Another form of microplastics (plastic less than 5mm in diameter) that wouldn’t be identified during a litter clean up is called microbeads and actually is drained into our oceans already in that small form. Present in many personal care items including exfoliating facial scrubs, shower gels, deodorants and even toothpastes, they are small enough to slip right through our water treatment facility filters and directly into our watersheds after being washed down our drains.
All of this surface pollution accumulates in 5 main gyres (natural convergence zones of rotating currents in each of the major ocean basins that collectively cover 40% of the ocean’s surface) across the Earth.
Over time, some of this surface waste ends up washing ashore. Much of the floating pieces of plastic are broken into increasingly smaller particles, called microplastics, over many years by sunlight and waves. And much of this then sinks. An estimated 70% of ocean pollution sinks to the seabed, so what we see at the surface represents just a fraction of the problem.
It is important to note that plastic pollution, and microbeads in particular, are in all bodies of water, not just in oceans. Microbeads have been found under Arctic Sea ice and in the Great Lakes. In fact, in 2013, researchers from 5 Gyres.org and the State University of New York found much higher microbead concentrations in the Great Lakes than in most of their ocean samples.
Where does this marine plastic pollution come from?
The majority of marine debris (80%) comes from mismanaged trash and debris on land, that flows to the ocean from rivers and wind. This pollution includes litter, trash and debris from construction, ports and marinas, commercial and industrial facilities, microbeads that are washed down our drain, and trash blown out of garbage containers, trucks, and landfills. The majority of this is believed to originate from coastal communities, and specifically communities that are located within 30 miles of the coastline.
The remaining 20% of ocean pollution comes from overboard discharges from cargo ships and discarded fishing gear.
A study put forth by the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering sought to go one step further in determining the sources of marine plastic pollution. It found that almost 60% of plastic pollution is estimated to be generated by five countries - China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. The top 15 countries listed below contribute 85% of annual ocean pollution.
These countries are high contributors because they have large coastal populations and waste management systems that are underdeveloped as compared to their creation of waste per capita.
Another study, led by Christian Schmidt, a hydrogeologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, corroborated these findings and clarified them even further, showing that 10 rivers carry about a quarter of annual marine plastic pollution into the ocean: the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges Delta in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa.
These studies have shown that while developed countries are certainly contributors as well, they have much less of an impact so than the coastal Asian and African countries listed above. The US is ranked 20th on the list of marine pollution contributors (contributing less than 1% of ocean pollution) and if they are looked at collectively, coastal European countries would rank 18th.
US and Europe contributions are largely due to the fact that while these wealthier countries do have strong waste management systems, they also use significantly more plastic per capita than developing nations. On the other hand, the contributions of developing nations are driven largely by their underdeveloped waste management infrastructure.
What does this mean for me and my business?
Many concerned citizens take one look at a tragic image of plastic floating in our seas and decide to cut single-use plastic out of their lives. This isn’t necessarily the wrong step to take. Eliminating the unnecessary use of single-use anything is good for environment (and, frankly, good for the soul).
Looking at this issue more closely, it is important to note that while the United States and Europe (where the majority of EcoEnclose’s customers and community reside) are certainly contributing to ocean debris, we are actually - frustratingly and depressingly - far greater relative contributors to carbon emissions per capita than we are of marine plastic pollution.
Europe and the US have more established and widespread waste management systems that exist in urban, suburban and rural communities, making it less likely for our trash to end up in the oceans instead of landfills and recycling facilities. While litter here is more prevalent than anyone wants, littering per capita in these developed countries is significantly lower than that of more developed nations (both because of the advanced infrastructure that makes it easy for individuals to discard items and because our culture and policies are more likely to discourage littering).
On the other hand, as more developed and wealthier nations, Europe and the US tend to burn far more fuel per capita than developing nations. Burning fossil fuel will always release carbon into the atmosphere. No nationwide infrastructure like waste management can change this equation.
This context highlights two important things. First, in adopting strategies and philosophies (as a business and a citizen) with the aim of reducing ocean pollution, it is important that you are simultaneously considering the impact of those decisions on greenhouse gas emissions as well (in addition to other environmental issues such as the release of toxins and effluent into water, air pollution, use of renewable resources, etc). Second, if you have a passion for halting and even reversing ocean pollution trends, consider not only your own operations and lifestyle, but also ways in which you can support the removal of ocean debris and waste management systems in developing coastal nations.
Nine tips to help you and your organization positively contribute to the dire marine plastic pollution crisis.
1. Think twice before sourcing materials or purchasing goods made overseas, especially in the countries identified as the worst offenders. This step will help your supply chain avoid cargo ship discharge (that accounts for up to 20% of the waste) and will avoid manufacturing in regions with insufficient waste management to capture and responsibly dispose of the trash inevitably generated by factories. Look for ways to get the same goods from regions that have more established and reliable waste management systems in place, prioritizing those with strong recycling streams and regulations holding companies accountable to clean waste practices.
2. Evaluate all of your product and packaging material and assess their potential end of life scenarios.
It is always a valuable exercise to think through the entire lifespan of your product and packaging (including both your product packaging and your ecommerce packaging). Think through how your customer will open, use and discard these items and where that means things will end up. Then, give each element of your product and packaging a “rating” as to how likely it is that it might end up as litter.
For example, let’s say you produce energy bars in California (a coastal state). You should be sensitive to the fact that these types of product wrappers are somewhat likely to be discarded irresponsibly. People eat them on the go. Wrappers are not discarded properly, fly out of pockets, or fly off the top of a garbage bin. Because they are so lightweight, these wrappers can quickly find themselves in rivers and oceans. If this is your company’s situation, you may give it a “high” rating in terms of its likelihood of becoming litter.
On the other hand, if you sell something that is likely to be opened and consumed at the home or office, litter is a far less likely end of life scenario so you would give it a “low” rating. Likewise, ecommerce packaging is most often opened up indoors, and consumers are likely to dispose of this packaging in the trash or recycling bin. Ecommerce packaging is also heavier and less aerodynamic than the trash that typically blows out of bins (such as candy wrappers and grocery bags). As such, you might give your ecommerce packaging a "low" rating.
3. Choose sustainable optimal materials given the likely end of life scenarios identified above.
For example, if elements of what you deliver to your customers were given a “high” rating in the above step, you might look for packaging that can readily biodegrade in outdoor conditions, prioritizing this characteristic over other eco-friendly qualities you could consider such as recycled content, recyclability, etc.
It is important to note that that bioplastic is not typically an optimal material for this situation. Bioplastic is unlikely to end up composted, is unrecyclable, and if it does end up as litter, is unlikely to decompose because bioplastic needs the specific conditions of an industrial composting facility in order to biodegrade.
For elements of what you deliver that were given a “low” rating in the above step, consider other environmental frameworks when making packaging decisions such as carbon footprint, recycled content and/or recyclability.
If you choose to prioritize minimizing the carbon footprint of your decisions, you’ll likely find that - counterintuitively - recycled plastic has a lower carbon footprint than an equivalent recycled paper-based packaging.
4. Use recycled material, especially recycled plastic
Use as much post-consumer waste as possible. Why is this important in the plastic pollution crisis? By demanding recycled content in your materials, especially for your plastic, you play a small role in strengthening the market for plastic recycling, giving players across the recycling supply chain incentive to invest in plastics recycling innovation and ensure plastic ends up back in the supply chain. This helps catalyze infrastructure worldwide to capture plastic rather than letting it flow freely into the oceans.
5. Ensure responsible waste management practices in your operation, especially as it relates to any plastic waste you create.
Do you use any plastic in your operation? Protective wrap for your products, poly bands around your pallets, etc? Set up systems to recycle each of these streams of waste responsibly.
Some of this waste can go into standard mixed recycling facilities. Plastic film, on the other hand, is considered “hard to recycle” and most communities have access to a facility that will accept this for a small fee to sell to composite wood manufacturers. Once your systems are in place, make sure your bins are solid and are secured tightly, not allowing any lightweight trash to blow out into the wind.
6. Eliminate microplastics from your operation and home
Look at every substance you wash down the drain, from your cleaners to your inks and manufacturing materials to your sunscreen. Ensure these materials do not have microplastics in them.
7. Educate and encourage your customers to adopt responsible waste management practices
Work hard to motivate and even reward your customers for reusing or at least responsibly disposing of their packaging and the actual product you are selling.
Chances are, if you are reading this, you may have made thoughtful choices about your product materials sourcing and packaging strategy. If that is the case, it is essential that your customers understand the investments you’ve made and get clear, easy guidance on how to responsibly discard what you’re sending them.
8. Participate in clean ups
Organize litter, and especially beach and river, cleanups with your team. This helps you remove litter that might otherwise end up floating in the ocean and it helps remove trash from the seas (because much of the debris circulating in ocean gyres end up washed ashore eventually).
9. Partner or donate
Donate to or partner with innovative organizations that have emerged to help curb this challenge. Some ideas include:
- NGOs like The Waste Aid UK, which are helping the countries most contributing to ocean pollution set up more advanced and societally appropriate waste management system.
- NGOs like The Ocean Cleanup, which are rolling out impressive large scale technologies to help clean up the shores, which in turn will clean up the ocean.
- Parley for the Oceans, which is helping spread the word about plastic pollution and forging partnerships with companies to help them utilize ocean waste as sources for their products.