A blog set out to explore, archive & relate plastic pollution happening world-wide, while learning about on-going efforts and solutions to help break free of our addiction to single-use plastics & sharing this awareness with a community of clean water lovers everywhere!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Myths vs. Facts Regarding Single Use Bag Bans and Fees

Published by Save the Bay

Myth: Recycling plastic bags is the best solution to addressing the litter problem. 
Fact: Plastic bag recycling is costly and just doesn’t work.

Despite a 15-year statewide effort in California, recycling plastic bags has failed. The California Integrated Waste Management Board estimates that less than 5 percent of all single use plastic bags in the state are actually recycled.

Plastic bags cost municipal recycling programs millions each year, when bags jam sorting equipment at recycling facilities. In San Jose, less than four percent of plastic bags are recycled and work stoppages from jammed bags cost the City approximately $1 million per year.

 Failed recycling efforts means billions of plastic bags are thrown away, blow onto our streets and float into our waterways. Plastic bags are the quintessential litter item: there are billions of them, they are used for a few short minutes, and they are light and easily transportable.

Myth: Recycled plastic bags are a valuable commodity. 

Fact: The market for recycled plastic bags is small and unstable.

At the moment, a single manufacturer, purchases 70 percent of the plastic bags recovered nationwide, to make outdoor decking. In 2008, Newsweek reported that the company lost $75 million in the previous year, raising questions about the long-term viability of the end market. Some curbside programs will take plastic bags if they are bundled, but the commodity is low grade and brings a low price, partly because it gets dirty during handling and transportation. Even the plastic bag industry doesn't use its own post-consumer material. Recyclers are sometimes forced to stockpile bales of bags or even pay to get rid of them.

Myth: Bans or fees on plastic bags will just push people to use more paper bags.
Fact: With well-designed policies that address both plastic and paper bags, consumers will switch to reusable cloth bags.

The legislation supported by Save The Bay and other advocates covers all single-use bags, both paper and plastic. This is a proven way to decrease the use of both kinds of bags in favor of reusable bags - which are inexpensive and long-lasting - ultimately saving retailers and consumers money. Every year in the U.S, consumers and retailers spend billions of dollars on excessive quantities of single-use bags that have an average use time of 12 minutes.

Myth: A fee on plastic bags didn't work in Ireland. 

Fact: Ireland's bag fee dramatically reduced plastic bag usage and plastic bag litter.

Ireland's Environmental Protection Agency submitted a letter to the San Jose City Council rebutting the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) false claims about Ireland's bag fee. In this letter, Ronan Mulhall of the Waste Policy division confirms that plastic bag litter dropped by 93 percent and plastic bag use decreased by approximately 90 percent in the year following the Plastic Bag Levy. Ireland later increased their fee to approximately 33 cents (US). The Irish EPA reports that these dramatically lower levels of plastic bag use and litter are being maintained.

Myth: Fees on single use bags will negatively impact low income people. 

Fact: No one has to pay the fee.

A single-use bag fee is only charged if you do not bring your own bag. Lower income communities (some of the most blighted by plastic bag litter) are already paying for plastic bags through city taxes and increased food and retail prices. Every bag fee policy currently under consideration at the local and state level would either subsidize reusable bags for low-income residents or exempt low-income residents from paying the fees.

Myth: Single-use bag bans or fees are bad policy in this time of economic crisis. 
Fact: Reducing the use of single-use plastic and paper bags will save us all money.

Retailers currently embed 2 to 5 cents per plastic bag and 5 to 23 cents per paper bag in the price of goods—adding $30 or more per person annually in hidden costs. In contrast, when consumers use reusable bags, retailers save money and can lower prices. Many grocers offer a 5-cent rebate for bringing your own bag, which can add up to about $60 in savings per year for an average family.

Bags clog storm drains and recycling equipment, costing cities millions, and bag litter lowers property values and degrades recreational areas. In addition to the out-of-pocket cost passed on from the retailer to consumers, California taxpayers spend approximately $25 million every year to collect and landfill plastic bags.6 San Jose City staff estimates that it costs at least $3 million annually to clean plastic bags from creeks and clogged storm drains.

Single-use bag production depletes resources and contributes to carbon emissions and global warming. We consume approximately 14 million trees8 and 12 million barrels of oil9 to produce the billions of plastic and paper bags we throw away in the United States every year.

Myth: Plastic bag litter isn't really a problem for the environment. 
Fact: 1.37 million plastic bags were removed from coastal areas worldwide in one day last year.

Plastic trash entangles, suffocates, and poisons at least 267 animal species worldwide. According to the California Coastal Commission, up to 80 percent of all marine debris is plastic, which never biodegrades.

Plastic bags were the second largest item of litter picked up by volunteers during the Ocean Conservancy's 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day. It is estimated that one million plastic bags pollute the Bay every year. Scientists recently measured 334,271 pieces of plastic per square mile in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Myth: Education about responsible use and disposal of plastic bags will reduce litter. 
Fact: Unfortunately, public education hasn't worked, despite massive public investment.

Huge amounts of money have been spent on public education about litter. One example is CalTrans' "Don't Trash California" campaign. Yet, we still see our highways coated in bags, cups, and cigarette butts. A fee on single use bags provides an incentive to consumers to change their behavior and switch to reusable bags.

Bag Fee D.C.- What Businesses are Saying

Published Nov. 18, 2011 in Ban The Bag.com

(image courtesy of Inertia)

Last winter the Alice Ferguson Foundation commissioned a study of Washington, DC, residents and businesses to learn more about how the five-cent bag fee was being received after its implementation, January 1st, 2010. The study was funded by the District Department of the Environment.

While littering is known to be a widespread problem (a previous AFF study found as many as 4 in 10 DC residents admit to actively littering), the bag fee has had a tremendous and immediate change in behavior, with 75 percent of residents reporting a reduction in their bag usage. 

Perhaps even more important when making the case for a new bag ordinance is the fact that the bag fee is also very popular with businesses. The majority of surveyed businesses said their consumption of bags is at least 50 percent lower than in 2009, as a result of the fee. Only 12 percent reported a negative impact on their business–with the primary complaint surrounding customer education. None reported lower sales. 

Instead, 78 percent of surveyed businesses have had neutral or positive experiences with the bag fee. Specifically they have observed a reduction in litter on their properties, and not-insignificant cost savings by not having to buy as many bags.

Businesses ranging from sole proprietorships in low-income areas all the way up to large national chains give positive feedback. Marcia Levi, the owner of Chocolate Moose, a gift shop in downtown DC, said, “This little 5-cent fee has really raised the level of public awareness in not using bags unnecessarily. I am so thrilled at the way this has played out for both my business and the environment.”

Books A Million reported saving $1,750 in 2010, just from purchasing fewer bags. Retailers, especially grocery stores, operate on such thin profit margins that simply reducing that one expense makes a big difference.

Statistics are very compelling for campaigners facing opposition from business. Case studies, stats, and knowledge of implemented policies and their effect on the bottom line are the tools for a successful campaign and how to make friends out of enemies.

Studying the D.C. model is of utmost importance.

Julie Lawson, D.C. Surfrider

Thursday, November 20, 2014

To reduce plastic waste, pay 10 cents a bag

A small bill can make a huge difference

Published in the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Wednesday, November 19, 2014
BY Donovan Richards , Margaret Chin , Brad Lander 
Bring a reusable tote. It's better for everyone.  
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images Bring a reusable tote. It's better for everyone.
This September, New York City was energized when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the People’s Climate March, to make it clear that we can’t stand idly by with the planet hanging in the balance.

But when it comes to the plastic bag waste that’s choking our oceans, clogging our storm drains, getting stuck in our trees and wasting our money, our city isn’t leading. In fact, we’re far behind.

There are already 142 municipalities around the country that have instituted fees or bans on disposable bags — and it’s not just places like San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Municipalities and counties in Texas, North Carolina and Arizona (not to mention China, Ireland and Rwanda) are also ahead of us.

Many of these places have already seen a 60% to 95% decrease in plastic bag use. Residents quickly, easily and overwhelmingly shifted to environmentally friendly reusable bags.

The benefits of this shift are easy to recognize. Plastic bags aren’t hanging from trees or clogging gutters, and sanitation departments are saving money by not having to clean up and dispose of those wasteful bags.

New Yorkers, by contrast, continue to use 5.2 billion disposable bags — 625 per person — each year. We spend $10 million of taxpayers’ money to truck them as waste to landfills, but many still end up as litter. Others blow into the ocean, where they join ever-growing islands of plastic waste that are filling our oceans.

Are we finally ready to do something about it?

We’re the sponsors of city legislation to place a 10-cent fee on disposable plastic and paper bags in convenience stores, supermarkets and delis citywide. That small fee will help remind New Yorkers to start bringing their own bags to the store — and with that shift will come the same benefits so many other cities are already enjoying.

(Paper is included in our legislation because our aim is to encourage reusable bag use, not to trade one environmentally harmful habit for another.)

You might have heard some misinformation about our bill. Here are some facts.

The experience of other cities shows that people across all income levels respond to a fee by dramatically reducing their plastic bag use. We all may still pay for a bag once in a while — but New Yorkers will start bringing reusable bags and mostly avoid the fee.

Our bill requires the city to distribute reusable bags throughout low-income communities to make sure everyone there has the opportunity to make the shift and avoid paying a fee. And it would exempt people who pay with food stamps. So it will not impose a financial burden.

Our bill won’t hurt small businesses, who will keep the 10-cent fee — it’s not a tax — and who won’t have to deal with any new paperwork requirements. It’s also been shown that consumers don’t shop less when fees are enacted.

And contrary to some claims, reusable bags are safe and sanitary. Consumer Reports has debunked the one study (which was funded by the plastic bag industry) that purported to show otherwise.

Our bill also won’t place any fee on the small plastic bags supermarkets provide specifically for meat and produce, so there’s no risk for cross-contamination. It never hurts to wash reusable bags to keep them clean — but there’s no evidence of a public health risk.

Here’s one more important fact. When the California Legislature recently passed a statewide ban on disposable plastic bags, it wasn’t just progressive lawmakers and environmentalists who pushed it through. The bill was backed by advocates for businesses, workers and low-income residents throughout the state.

So why are we still wallowing in plastic-bag waste?

Chin, Lander and Richards are City Council members, respectively representing lower Manhattan, Park Slope and Gowanus in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens. Richards is chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee and Lander is deputy leader for policy.

The Great Pacific Cleanup

Charles Moore, the man who first discovered the now infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, has famously claimed that cleaning it up would be impossible: “Trying to clean up the Pacific gyre would bankrupt any country and kill wildlife in the nets as it went”, he’s proclaimed.

And there’s no denying that the plastic-ridden expanse of the North Pacific, the largest of five oceanic gyres where plastics collect in slowly rotating currents, is a challenging environmental nightmare, one that can’t be fixed with a fleet of carbon-emitting and net-dragging boats. 

The Algalita Marine Research and Education Foundation, where Moore works, describes the garbage patch as ‘a “plastic soup”, where the plastic is distributed throughout the water column’, taking up an area of the ocean roughly two times the size of Texas. With most of the plastic broken into small pieces through exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, the foundation presents this disheartening analogy for those ambitious enough to think it can be cleared: ‘Think of how difficult it would be to gather confetti from along a stretch of beach. Now imagine the area you are trying to clean is not only miles long, but also miles deep.’

The photodegraded plastic, which outnumbers plankton by a ratio of six to one, is often mistaken as food by marine life and, even when it doesn’t directly kill those that ingest it (and it reportedly kills at least a million sea birds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals each year), it can enter the food chain, bringing with it a whole host of undesirable chemicals – hormone disrupters like bisphenol A and potential carcinogens like styrene monomers – that the plastic releases as it degrades, as well as hydrophobic fertilizers and herbicides that it absorbs in the marine environment.

It’s a bit of an overwhelming problem, and, with environmental dilemmas like this, “the common response is ‘Well, that’s a long way off. That’s for our children to worry about’”, according to Boyan Slat. Speaking in the video of his TEDx talk in his home city of Delft, Netherlands, Slat follows that assertion with a cheeky grin and the statement: “Hello. Here I am.”

The Great Pacific Cleanup
At the time of giving his talk, Slat was just 17 years old and was presenting his concept for a passive oceanic cleanup system, which grew out of a high school science project. Slat explains: “I realised, back in high school, that there might be an alternative [to a cleanup process based on vessels with nets that would be fishing for plastic]. I wondered: why move through the oceans if the oceans can move through you? 

Instead of going after the plastics, you could simply wait for the plastic to come to you, without requiring any added energy. An array of floating barriers would first catch and then concentrate the debris, enabling a platform to efficiently extract the plastic afterwards. The ocean currents would pass underneath these barriers, taking… sealife with it, preventing by-catch. An elegant idea. But when I got asked to present this idea at the TEDx Delft conference, it wasn’t much more than that – an idea.”

Though The Ocean Cleanup estimates it can collect the majority of plastic mass from the world’s oceanic gyres, it does not think it can collect any microplastics, particles less than five millimetres (mm) (or even one mm, according to some researchers). In fact, under the modelled conditions, no plastics smaller than two centimetres were captured.

“There appears to be a sink for microplastics that is already in place”, Slat tells me. “We don’t know what it is, but it could be that fish are eating it and therefore they cannot be found anymore near the surface of the water – there should be a lot more of them, but there aren’t. It could also be that they sink, that they are deeper in the water column – we have some evidence for that.”

Slat emphasises that, by capturing 95 per cent of the mass of oceanic plastic, The Ocean Cleanup would prevent many microplastics from being created, as larger plastic items photodegrade into ever-smaller pieces in pelagic conditions. However, microplastics don’t just come from larger bits of plastic – some start off micro, which is of increasing concern to scientists and environmental campaigners.

‘Primary microplastics’ are popular in beauty products as abrasives and exfoliants, especially in face washes, toothpaste, shaving cream and shower gel – and these microbeads are now commonly made from plastic rather than natural materials (be sure to read your ingredient list!). Microplastics can also originate in household washing machines, due to the shedding of synthetic textile fibres – in either case, these tiny bits of plastic are too small to be extracted by sewage treatment works, and slip through to marine ecosystems with devastating consequences.

While there’s little that can currently be done about microplastics that break away from larger masses, there’s now an international campaign, ‘Beat the Microbead’, which was launched by the Plastic Soup Foundation in 2012. As a result, a number of multinational cosmetic companies have pledged to phase out microbeads, though many have not set definite timetables. 

Moreover, the Dutch government is pushing for a ban in Europe, which would be similar to bans in some US states; following concern about microplastic dispersion in the Great Lakes, Illinois and New York have banned the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads, with Michigan and Ohio looking to follow suit.

To find out more information, visit: www.beatthemicrobead.org

After presenting his idea at TEDx, Slat started studying aerospace engineering, but, he says he couldn’t stop thinking about ocean plastics and so turned to professors and industry experts to help compile a list of 50 questions that needed to be answered to call his idea a feasible solution. 

He subsequently suspended his studies to set up The Ocean Cleanup foundation, and used crowdfunding and the work of many volunteers and professionals in many fields – including ecology, engineering, fluid dynamics, plastic processing and maritime law – to conduct an extensive feasibility study into the idea. This summer, the foundation released a 530-page report claiming that the idea is indeed feasible.

“The basic concept and all the basic principles – so, the catching of the plastics, the concentration of the plastics – haven’t changed and have in fact now been validated, but what has changed now is some of the details”, Slat tells me, adding: “For example, how the mooring systems work, what the platform looks like – at first it looked like a fancy UFO crashed into the ocean; it now more closely resembles an oil rig [see image on p.51]. 

Basically, when I made these concept designs, I didn’t have any knowledge whatsoever, there was no one helping me three years ago. Now, fortunately, having worked with a team of 100 people, including 70 scientists and engineers – we’ve been able to develop this.”

It’s mainly the details that have changed, and, Slat says, they now have more accurate estimates for many aspects of the project. The study conservatively estimates that there are 140,000 tonnes of plastic floating in the North Pacific gyre – 119,000 tonnes of particles larger than two centimetres and 21,000 tonnes smaller than two centimetres (see boxout on microplastics on p.54). 

Most of this plastic, according to the study, is concentrated close to the surface of the water, with mass decreasing exponentially with depth, leading to the conclusion that the floating barriers should be placed at a depth of two to three metres to collect the greatest mass of plastic pollution. 

The design of these floating booms has also changed, as tests found that long booms with high tension wouldn’t be able to work with the movements of the waves, and in fact could ‘overtop’, likely losing some of the plastic collected. The Ocean Cleanup has attempted to address the problem with a design that sees boom and tension cable separated, with booms connected to the cable every 60 metres. The booms are comprised of floating buoyancy elements with weighted ‘skirts’ – thin, impermeable and flexible sheets that direct the plastics – hanging to a depth of two to three metres. 

They will be positioned in a ‘V’ shape, and angled toward a central platform with the aim of concentrating the plastic; the models show that 80 per cent of the plastic that encounters the booms will be captured. It will then collect at the moored processing platforms that Slat says look like oil rigs (though some might think they’re remarkably like air traffic control towers anchored to the sea floor), from which it will have to be picked up by ship every 45 days.

The ocean cleanup system in action
Slat explains that this system is highly scalable and that the percentage of plastics that it can capture depends on the scale of deployment: “If you deploy a single system with a length of a hundred kilometres, you would collect 42 per cent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where about a third of all plastics from all oceans combined can be found. 

But if you deploy something that’s, say, 200 kilometres, you would collect about two-thirds of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. If you use a hundred-kilometre device and deploy it for 20 years, you would collect about 75 per cent, so it really depends on these variables. We can say that the majority of plastics in this area can be collected using this system.”

And it’s not just the collection of plastic that the foundation is looking into – it’s also considering what to do with the harvested material. The feasibility study involved collecting half a tonne of plastic from a remote Hawaiian beach, considered to be a ‘representative’ sample of gyre debris. This waste was tested by pyrolysis companies, which found that ‘the quality of the pyrolysis oil obtained from the polyolefin fraction of marine debris is comparable to that obtained as regular input in their pyrolysis plants’. 

The cover of the 530-page feasibility document itself was also made using ocean plastics treated with a heat press. Slat proudly displays the finished product saying: “You can still see that it’s made out of ocean plastic because you have these weird colours that look kind of cool.”

Since completing the study, Slat tells me, they have also done some experiments into recycling the plastic through injection moulding, and that “the quality by far exceeded our expectations”. “The injection moulding was 50 per cent polypropylene, 50 per cent polyethylene. The only preprocessing was washing to remove any organic contaminants. Of course, it will certainly be downcycling in a way because you can’t use it for food packaging, and we’re still doing some chemical analysis of it to see if there’s any contamination that we should worry about.” That being said, he still anticipates any number of things could be made out of the material – “computer screens or chairs or anything you can imagine”. 
cleaning up the great pacific garbage patch
Putting the plastic to good use will also offset some of the costs of the project, and perhaps even make it profitable: “Because of the premium of it being ocean plastic, I think there’s definitely a market for it, and I’m confident that it can cover at least part of the costs of the execution”, Slat says. The study estimates that it would cost €317 million (£247.5 million) to remove 42 per cent of waste from the North Pacific Gyre over 10 years; to break even, the project would need to receive €4.53 (£3.54) per kilogramme of collected plastic.

But all this is still a few years off. Following the triumphant launch of the feasibility study, The Ocean Cleanup created another crowdfunding campaign, this time seeking US$2 million (£1.2 million) to proceed to the next phase of testing. When I spoke to Slat several days before the deadline, the pledges were still US$70,000 (£42,900) short, and the situation was “rather tense”, though he assured me the research would continue with or without the funding, albeit at a much slower pace in the latter case. As it happened, the campaign raised more than US$2.15 million (£1.32 million), making the next steps much easier. 

“Now, we’ll start the pilot stage and through a series of upscale tests, we’ll work towards this large-scale operation of a pilot in about three to four years’ time”, Slat explains. “We’ve shown that the concept is likely feasible, but now we have to also make it executable. There are some factors that primarily influence the costs as well as the efficiency. 

So, there is a large uncertainty of the amount of plastic in the area, so that’s something that we will be working on. And then there’s the variability of the current, which will likely influence the collection efficiency. In the next year, we will mostly be doing controlled environment tests, then we’ll go to coastal waters and then in two years’ time, we’ll be ready to go to the centres of the gyres to do tests there and deploy a large-scale device. That should be the final stepping stone before actually doing it on the full scale.”

This article was taken from Issue 78
In the coming years, The Ocean Cleanup will also be continuing to emphasise the importance of preventing plastics from reaching the oceans in the first place: “Just because we have a way to clean up what’s already out there, it shouldn’t be an excuse to continue pollution, but now should be the time that we really do our best to make sure that the tap is closed, as well”, Slat says, and indicates that the project could also look at ways to intercept plastic before it reaches the ocean.

So there is still a lot of work to be done, but there are certainly reasons to be optimistic. And even the famous Garbage Patch discoverer and cleanup naysayer isn’t overly pessimistic about the project’s prospects: Slat tells me he had “a wonderful four or five hour discussion” with Charles Moore about his concept, and the captain “wasn’t too negative about it” (though he was “definitely sceptical”).

“Human history is basically a list of things that couldn’t be done and then were done”, the tireless and optimistic young man proclaimed when launching the feasibility study. Here’s hoping we can soon add cleaning up the oceans to that list… 
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Hawaiian Marine Refuge Filled with Ocean Life... and Garbage

Published in Nature World News by Jenna Iacurci Nov 18, 2014
green sea turtle 
Pictured: Green sea turtle. (Photo : Greg McFall/NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr)
The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, one of the largest marine refuges in the world, is filled with a wide array of ocean life, as well as 57 tons of garbage.
At least, it was until the NOAA sent a team to the World Heritage Site in October to clean up the trash, which had shockingly accumulated in just a year's time. This stretch of tiny uninhabited islands and coral reefs seems to be the endpoint of the massive amounts of garbage that humans dump into the oceans.

A group of 17 NOAA divers aboard the Oscar Elton Sette spent 33 days removing 57 tons of garbage, ranging from bottle caps and cigarette lighters to giant nets lost by factory fishing trawlers - one of which was 28 feet by 7 feet and weighed 11.5 tons.

(Photo : NOAA)
And among the thousands of pieces of plastic they retrieved were 7,436 hard plastic fragments, 3,758 bottle caps, 1,469 plastic beverage bottles and nearly 500 lighters.

"The amount of marine debris we find in this remote, untouched place is shocking," Mark Manuel, operations manager for NOAA Fisheries Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and chief scientist for the mission, said in a press release. "Every day, we pulled up nets weighing hundreds of pounds from the corals. We filled the dumpster on the Sette to the top with nets, and then we filled the decks. There's a point when you can handle no more, but there's still a lot out there."

And that's bad news for the collection of animals and plants like seabirds and endangered green sea turtles that call this marine refuge home. Divers rescued some of these turtles from derelict fishing nets dredged up from the ocean bottom.

The NOAA, which uses maps with GIS locations based on 15 years of data to locate the trash, has conducted this mission annually since 1996, removing a whopping 904 tons of marine debris in total.
"This mission is critical to keeping marine debris from building up in the monument," added Kyle Koyanagi, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for NOAA's Marine Debris Program.

To help shrink the amount of waste that ends up in our once-pristine oceans, the Environmental Protection Agency says reducing, reusing and recycling are the three key steps.



The videos below show two men attempting to cut loose two loggerhead turtles they had found when surfing and somehow (loggerheads can weigh up to 400kg) contrived to bring ashore. Knowing the full moon was likely to bring huge waves, Fin had opened the internet to watch his mates performing their usual death-defying runs at the rocky Charco del la Condesa off the Valle Gran Rey.

And this one shows the now happily liberated creatures

Net Gain: Fighting Ocean Pollution

Three American entrepreneurs fight ocean plastic pollution by upcycling discarded fishing nets into skateboards


This story was produced in partnership with FUTUREPERFECT

Ben Kneppers paused as he strolled around a music festival in Santiago, Chile. In front of him was a booth where local kids could repair damaged skateboards, making them ride-able again rather than throwing them away. Kneppers, an environmental consultant originally from Massachusetts, was impressed by the project. And as an avid boarder himself, he admired the kids gliding and kick-turning along a stretch of pavement with their refurbished boards.

Then he got an idea.

He and two friends had been talking for months about finding a way to address the issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans by starting a business making products out of that trash. “I thought, ‘Wow, maybe skateboards could be our product,’” he says. “It would be a great tool for educating the younger generation on this issue.”

photo of discarded plastic 
photo by Kevin AhearnDiscarded fishing nets on the Chilean coastline

Fast-forward 18 months, Kneppers and his business partners, Dave Stover and Kevin Ahearn, have started a skateboard company they named Bureo, which means "the waves" in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche, the native people of Chile. They recently shipped their first batch of skateboards, the Bureo Minnow Cruiser, to select shops in California, Chicago, and New York.

What makes the Minnow different from dozens of other skateboards is the fact that it’s built from trash. The board’s 25-inch skatedeck is made out of recycled plastic fishing nets. What makes Bureo different from most companies is that it’s just as focused on its recycling mission as it is on selling its product. Kneppers, Stover, and Ahearn – who grew up near beaches in the United States – formed the company with a mission to do something positive to address the growing problem of ocean plastic pollution.

“As surfers who have spent our lives around the ocean, we have a deep connection with the ocean,” Stover said. “We needed a product that would support our idea for a sustainable collection and recycling program and make a skateboard fit our mission to address this problem in a positive way.”

The group decided to focus on recycling fishing nets because 10 percent of the ocean’s plastic waste comes from fishing gear and because the nets can harm marine life: dolphins, sea turtles, and seals can get tangled in them and often die. 

Chilean fishers typically dump worn nets in the ocean because disposing of them is costly; landfills are privately owned in the country, and getting garbage to them requires paying for a truck to haul it away. Kneppers was quick to add that the net littering is not just a Chilean problem. “When we were doing our research,” he said. “We talked to people in California and on the East Coast, and everyone’s admitted to doing it at times for convenience.”

He and his business partners created a program they call Net Positiva, Chile’s first-ever fishnet collection and recycling system. They distributed collection bags in three villages and offered to compensate the local fishers' organizations for every kilo of recycled nets; the groups could then distribute the money to their members. “We collected over three tons in the first six months,” Kneppers said. “We hope to soon extend the program to three more locations, as the whole model is designed for scalability.”

The idea for a recycling program came before Kneppers had his moment of inspiration at that music festival in Santiago. He and Stover were roommates while they were working in Australia in 2011. Both are avid surfers, and they often stayed up late talking about how to tackle plastic pollution in the oceans – something they were reminded of each time they headed into the surf. (Ahearn, also a surfer, joined them later when they realized they needed a designer.)

photo of people riding skateboards 
photo by Matt SmithBureo cofounders Kevin Ahearn and David Stover riding their Minnows.

Once they had a product in mind, the hard part followed: how to actually make their dream a reality.

They went to Kneppers’ alma mater, Northeastern University, which runs a program for potential entrepreneurs. The university provided them with a coach and some initial funding that allowed them to test the fishing nets to see if they would be durable enough to create a skateboard.

From there, they applied for and received a grant from the Chilean government through a program called Start-Up Chile to help set up the net recycling program. Finally, they turned to Kickstarter, launching a campaign in April 2014 that quickly raised $64,000 – more than twice their $25,000 goal – which allowed them to start production on a large scale.

The recycled nets are melted down and fed into an injection mold that creates the skate decks, which have a fishscale pattern across their surface for better grip. But the sustainability of the boards doesn’t end there. The wheel cores are constructed from 100 percent recycled plastic, and the wheel exteriors are made from 30 percent vegetable oil. 

The company uses 100 percent recycled paper and cardboard for packaging and only transports the nets from the villages to the factory in Santiago on trucks that have brought other cargo to the villages and would otherwise return to the city empty.

Outdoor clothing and gear company, Patagonia recently announced that it is investing in the company.

“Bureo is not your typical startup – they’ve invented an incredible recycling program by rallying the fishing industry in Chile to turn plastic ocean waste into a great product,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said in a press release. “We’re investing in Bureo’s vision to scale their business to a global level and make a serious dent in the amount of plastic that gets thrown away in our oceans.”

Kneppers, Stover, and Ahearn’s commitment to sustainability goes beyond upcycling skateboards, however. The three recently spent the summer participating in beach cleanups in California as part of the 5 Gyres Plastic Beach Project, and at each stop they raffled off a Minnow board to volunteers who helped with the cleanup. They have also partnered with the Save the Waves Coalition and the Surfrider Foundation, which are working to clean and conserve coastlines around the world.

In addition, they are planning a line of organic cotton T-shirts that will help fund Unidos Por Aguas Limpias, a nonprofit in Chile that works to preserve natural areas around surfing areas and has an annual beach cleanup project every March.

“We believe the boards are just the beginning,” Ahearn said. “We want to continue innovating and finding solutions to ocean plastic pollution.”

Kneppers says the local fishers were initially a bit suspicious of the three partners when they proposed this project. But that changed when they were able to hand out the finished product. “They have pride,” he says. “They loved grabbing and examining it.” Then, he adds, they handed the board to their children – who knew just what to do with it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The afterlife of plastic

With more energy than coal or wood, plastic could become a new global energy source

plastic to oil
Chemical engineer David Wilson holding a sample of waste plastic and oil reclaimed from plastic at BP’s feedstock recycling pilot plant in Grangemouth, Scotland.
James King-Holmes / Science Source
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — For the past few weeks, Moinuddin Sarker has been driving up and down the Connecticut coast looking for a large warehouse facility. He needs it to commercialize a chemical process he has pioneered. A material chemist who was born in Bangladesh and educated at the University of Manchester, Sarker wants to go from being a bench scientist to an entrepreneur.

In late October, he signed a lease on a 57,000-square-foot facility in Bridgeport where, with the help of $15 million from an investor, he plans to open the doors of his oil plant in January.

But he won’t be drilling in the waters of the nearby Long Island Sound. Instead, he has been negotiating with local sanitation companies to buy their plastic waste and plans to use it to produce 20 million to 30 million barrels of fuel a year, enough to heat all Connecticut households in the winter months.

Sarker’s company, Waste Technologies, seeks to convert plastic to oil through a process known as pyrolysis, which melts plastic in the absence of oxygen and turns it into petroleum. In the first week of November, Sarker received a patent for his version of the process.

There are other U.S. companies that are trying to commercialize a similar technology, including Agilyx in Beavertown, Oregon (where Richard Branson is an investor); RES Polyflow in Akron, Ohio; JBI in Niagara Falls, New York; and HighWave Energy in Summit, New Jersey, as well as Cynar in England.

By processing the plastic that cannot be recycled — flower pots, bottoms of plastic cups, plastic wrapping around jars, styrofoam containers and even fiberglass — these companies are emulating northern European countries such as Germany, Denmark and Norway that have long viewed garbage as a gold mine.

‘I grew up believing that plastic was the bane of our existence and that I had to find a solution for it.’ -Karin Kauffman founder of company that developed thermal cracking 

They are also part of an emerging industry that, according to a July study from the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University, can revolutionize the U.S. economy and energy sources. By mining the plastic currently in U.S. landfills and converting it to oil, the study projects, it would by possible to produce enough fuel to drive 9 million cars or generate enough electricity to heat 14 million homes for a whole year.

“Plastic is considerably higher in energy than coal and wood,” says Charles Mussche, one of the authors. “[But] the companies are still in their kids’ shoes,” Mussche warns, borrowing a metaphor from his native Dutch. “They are getting into their teen years, but it is not a developed industry.”

And the chemical process is not without controversy. Environmental advocates have questions about the process’s possibly toxic by-products, how much energy is needed to run the plants and whether it’s a tacit endorsement of plastic production at a time when Hawaii, California and other states have outlawed single-use plastic bags and Rhode Island, New Jersey and Massachusetts have similar legislation pending.

But plastics-to-oil producers say they share the public’s concerns. “I grew up believing that plastic was the bane of our existence and that I had to find a solution for it,” says Karin Kauffman, who in 2003 founded the research company where Sarker developed his version of pyrolysis, with $5 million of her own money. “As a practicing Buddhist, it was a religious calling for me to figure out how to ease the pollution of plastic on our planet,” she adds.

Sarker came on board in 2005, and by 2010, he had refined the pyrolysis-like process he calls “thermal cracking.” Now with the help of a new investor he is striking out on his own to put this process into action. The technology is based on a little-known fact about plastic: that it is originally made from oil. Converting it back to oil is not difficult, according to Phillip Savage, professor of chemical engineering at Penn State University.


Garbage as a gold mine

Plastic is usually made by heating crude oil, cooling it and adding preservatives so it is able to hold its shape. It can then be molded into light, flexible forms for use as shopping bags, takeout containers or plastic toys. The great benefit of plastic — and perhaps the reason why since its development in the mid-20th century more than 6 billion tons have been manufactured — is that it does not react with other agents. At room temperature, plastic containers can store alcohol, water and even fuel.

To turn plastic back to its original state requires subjecting it to heat of about 707 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit in an oxygen-starved environment. It is different from burning since there’s no combustion with oxygen. The plastic is literally turned to vapor, which can be captured and turned to liquid, producing kerosene, gasoline or diesel fuel, which, according to Sarker, is ready to be put straight into any machine with an engine.

‘[Oil from pyrolysis is] no different from what you buy at a gas station. It’s even a higher quality. It can power cars, generators, anything with an engine.’ -Moinuddin Sarker developer, thermal cracking

Sarker says that it costs only about $1 to produce a gallon of oil through pyrolysis, which is “no different from what you buy at a gas station — it’s even a higher quality,” he says. “It can power cars, generators, anything with an engine.” Sarker’s investor owns an oil refinery and several gas stations and plans to combine the oil from the new plant with his oil and sell it, Sarker says.

Plastic waste makes up 13 percent of all solid waste in the United States. According to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, out of the 200 million tons of plastic produced each year, 32 million tons are thrown away after a single use. Nine percent of all plastic can be recycled, but the rest goes straight into landfills. Some of that ends up in the ocean.

While there aren’t exact figures for just how much, cases of marine animals that have died from ingesting plastic have made it into headlines. This summer and fall, two sei whales washed up on shore in Virginia and off the coast of Washington state, near Seattle. A necropsy of one of the whales, a female, revealed that a piece of plastic that looked like a DVD case was lodged in her stomach. The one in Seattle had plastic bags and golf balls in its stomach.
shredded plastic waste
A technician holding a handful of shredded waste plastic at a recycling facility, BP's Feedstock Recycling Pilot Plant, Grangemouth, Scotland.
James King-Holmes / Science Source
Jay Schabel, the chief executive officer of RES Polyflow, has similar plans for processing solid waste. With a functional plant, he is further along than Sarker; Schabel is currently working out the kinks of the industrial process. RES Polyflow plans to process, on average, 5,000 pounds of waste an hour to produce 3 million gallons of fuel a year.

He has worked closely with waste companies and used to think that large chemical companies would be the first to these emerging pyrolysis technologies, but “big petrochemical companies have dabbled with it as a way to get rid of the plastic they produce,” he says, “but they couldn’t make it work financially, so it’s left to smaller start-ups to try.

Polyflow is working with the agriculture sector to collect heavy farm-related materials such as the plastic sheets used to line crop beds and the large, heavy-duty bags used to move crops, fertilizer and soil. “And if we can make plastic waste a valuable material, the benefit is that it’s less likely it’ll continue to pollute the environment,” he says.


Environmental benefit?

Sarker and Schabel both hope that turning plastic waste into a commodity will be good for their companies and good for the environment.

But Keith Weitz, an environmental scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit research institution that tracks waste management, says the technology is not quite there: “We’re a good few years out before we see how well the first-generation facilities work in real-world settings.”

 Plus, there are significant barriers, such as federal rules and requirements governing the quality of transportation-grade fuel. This means that “the synthetic oil produced by pyrolysis will likely require additional refining if it is to be used as a vehicle fuel. This increases the cost to facilities and consumes energy resources,” he writes in an email.

Some energy experts also worry about pollutants and that sending more carbon into the atmosphere will cause further damage to the ozone, fueling climate change.

“It all depends on the problem you want to solve,” says John DeCicco, an energy expert at the University of Michigan. “If your objective is to lower carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, pyrolysis is not necessarily a benefit. If plastic is landfilled, you’re as ahead of the game as you’re going to be by keeping the carbon out of the air.”
plastic bottles
A worker transports discarded plastic bottles imported from Australia, at a plant in Hong Kong's rural New Territories, August 24, 2011, before a process which separates plastic waste from them.
Bobby Yip / Reuters / Landov
Environmentalists have a similarly measured response. Charles Moore, an oceanographer who in 1997 discovered a large mass of plastic in the Pacific Ocean (dubbed “the great Pacific garbage patch” by the media) and who leads a foundation dedicated to keeping plastic pollution out of oceans, says that pyrolysis “doesn’t stop the generation of plastic to begin with, which should be the goal.”

His preferred solution would be finding an alternative to plastic that is biodegradable. He would, however, endorse pyrolysis as an interim solution if there were a way to stop plastic waste from washing into the ocean. “I just came back from an expedition in the Pacific and I’ve never seen so much plastic out there,” Moore says.

But environmental agencies such as National Resource Defense Council say more pragmatism is needed. “Every category of waste has its best ecological route. And converting the plastic that can’t be recycled to liquid fuel is a good path,” says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist and waste expert at the NRDC.

‘Producing oil from waste at home should be considered better than using energy to bring petroleum from halfway round the world.’ -Jay Schabel, CEO, RES Polyflow, a plastics-to-oil company
Regarding the concerns about environmental damage from pyrolysis, Schabel argues that “producing oil from waste at home should be considered better than using energy to bring petroleum from halfway round the world.”

Yet environmental groups are also concerned about the end product of pyrolysis. When plastic is first made, preservatives such as talc, sawdust and hazardous additives such as lead and arsenic are added to help the material hold its shape. When the plastic melts, the additives end up as black char.

RTI’s Weitz says the only studies on what gets left behind after plastic is converted to oil so far have been reports from the companies themselves. Sarker and Schabel both say the char constitutes 2 percent of the weight of the original plastic waste (for every 5,000 pounds of plastic their companies process they’re left with 100 pounds of char) and that it’s nonhazardous. Both their companies are in the process of figuring out a use for it.

The two men are making plans to bring this emerging technology to market. Sarker is currently negotiating to provide oil to the company that runs the ferry from Bridgeport to Montauk, New York. And Schabel’s RES Polyflow is scheduled to be operational by early 2016.

Sarker already plans to open plants all across the northeast: New Jersey, New York and a second plant in Connecticut. Schabel says Polyflow has received a $1 million dollar grant from the Ohio state government but that he has also had to round up additional investor support of about $7 million. “We want to be seen as an alternative-energy fuel. Awareness is the biggest challenge.”

Seabirds' plastic diet shows up in their feather oil

Published in ABC.net by Christopher Doyle, ABC Environment, Nov 11, 2014
A short-tailed shearwater or muttonbird
The amount of plastic a short-tailed shearwater has eaten can now be assessed by swabbing near its tail feathers. Credit: JJ Harrison (Creative commons)
Scientists have developed a new technique to assess how much plastic a seabird has eaten. It involves a quick massage and a cotton swab.

A TEAM OF AUSTRALIAN scientists has developed a new method for assessing how much plastic debris a seabird has eaten while foraging on the open ocean, leading to a better understanding of how human rubbish is affecting other species.

The scientists, from CSIRO's Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, say preening oil — the waxy substance used by seabirds to prevent their feathers from becoming waterlogged — can provide an indirect measure of plastic ingestion (pdf).

Plastic debris on beaches and in the ocean has increased dramatically over the last few decades due to the increased use of plastics in everyday consumer items.

Seabirds have been particularly affected by plastic pollution as they often mistake floating plastic for food.

"Seabirds earn their living out there on the oceans — they are flying, they are foraging, they are migrating, and that is where they are coming into contact with plastic," said the study's lead author, Dr Denise Hardesty.

"Often they just mistake the plastic as an appropriate prey item. They are naïve consumers, so they don't know any better."

Previous studies examining how much plastic seabirds ingest have relied upon conducting a 'lavage', a procedure where the gut is flushed repeatedly to bring out its contents. But this procedure can be stressful for the birds and often results in incomplete samples, as not all plastic fragments are dislodged from the stomach.

Another method has been to dissect dead birds that washed ashore. But this can result in biased samples as it is unknown how the birds died and if ill-health affected their plastic consumption prior to death.

The new method devised by Hardesty and her colleagues, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, involves taking samples of preening oil from live seabirds, enabling researchers to get much larger and more random samples from healthy populations.

Preening oil is produced by the uropygial gland located near the base of a bird's tail. It can be extracted by light massaging and collected using a simple swab technique.

Some components of plastic materials accumulate in preening oil after they have been ingested and absorbed by the body.

Hardesty and her colleagues measured the level of three commonly used plasticisers, called phthalates, in the preening oil of five seabird species from off the coast of Western Australia and from populations in Port Fairy, Victoria, and Heron Island in Queensland.

The team found that the levels of phthalates in preening oil correlated well with the level of plastic pollution and the foraging strategies of each bird species.

"Plastic bottles, lids, toys, take away containers — phthalates are in so many of these end-user products. They enter the environment from these products by going down stormwater drains, being dropped at beaches, and ultimately ending up in the stomachs of seabirds," Hardesty said.

Due to the widespread use of plastics, the scientists had to take extra precautions to ensure their samples were not contaminated with plastics from other sources.

"We had to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure everything we were using was clean. We did not want to bias our results and mistakenly use sampling materials that had already come into contact with plastic," Hardesty said.

Despite this, Hardesty said the new procedure is quick and efficient, and is much less stressful for the birds.

She is hopeful the technique can be used for other wildlife, including turtles and dugongs, which are also at risk of ingesting plastic debris.

While these animals do not produce preening oil, Hardesty said the levels of plasticisers in these species can potentially be measured in fatty tissue taken using small biopsies.

Friday, November 7, 2014

57 Tons of Garbage Removed From Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Published November 3, 204 by Gina-Marie Cheeseman in Triplepundit.com

Last week, a team of 17 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) divers returned from a mission in which it removed 57 tons of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

marine debris
The divers traveled on the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette for a 33-day mission to remove marine debris from Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. The monument is a World Heritage Site and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. Most of the debris removed was either fishing nets or plastic letter.

NOAA has led missions to clean marine debris every year since 1996, removing 904 tons in total, including the 57 tons removed on this latest mission.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands include 5,178 square miles of the least disturbed coral reef habitat in U.S. waters. Divers found three sea turtles tangled in nets at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. The divers removed almost 6.25 tons of plastic trash on the shorelines of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. At the end of the voyage, they removed 7,436 hard plastic fragments, 3,758 bottle caps, 1,469 plastic beverage bottles and 477 lighters.

“The amount of marine debris we find in this remote, untouched place is shocking,” said Mark Manuel, operations manager for NOAA Fisheries Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and chief scientist for the mission. “Every day, we pulled up nets weighing hundreds of pounds from the corals. We filled the dumpster on the Sette to the top with nets, and then we filled the decks. There’s a point when you can handle no more, but there’s still a lot out there.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Where does all of that debris come from? It is part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean spanning waters from the North American West Coast to Japan. It is also called the Pacific Trash Vortex, and it is the largest plastic dump on earth. Most of the debris is not biodegradable and much of it is plastic, which breaks down into small pieces known as ‘microplastic.’

About 80 percent of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia, and 20 percent comes from boaters, offshore oil rigs and large cargo ships. The majority of the debris from ocean-based activities is fishing nets, about 705,000 tons in total.

Captain Charles Moore first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the early 1990s when he sailed through an area between Hawaii and the mainland that is rarely traveled. During a week, he noticed a steady stream of plastic debris float by although he was hundreds of miles from land.

Scientists have collected up to 750,000 microplastic pieces in just one square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which equals about 1.9 million bits per square mile. Most of the debris comes from plastic bags, plastic water bottles, bottle caps and Styrofoam cups. Scientists predict it will likely double in size in the next 10 years.

In 2001, scientists documented that plastic particles outnumbered plankton by a factor of 6:1, or for every pound of plankton in some parts of the Pacific gyre, there were six pounds of microplastic. In one area, there was found to be an average of 334,271 pieces per square kilometer . Some fish and birds are eating the microplastic pieces. Five to 10 percent of fish in the area contain small pieces of plastic.

Where does all of the microplastic come from? Seven billion pounds of non-recyclable plastic is created every year. Unfortunately, some of it ends up in the Pacific Ocean.
Image credit: Bo Elde