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!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

More Plastic Than Fish in the Ocean by 2050

Published by Cole Mellino, January 20, 2016 in EcoWatch.com

There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, warned the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in a report published Tuesday. The report, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics, was produced by the foundation and the World Economic Forum with analytical support from McKinsey & Company.

There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Photo credit: Plastic Pollution

Every year “at least 8 million tons of plastics leak into the ocean—which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute,” the report finds. “If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.

“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).”

Plastic production has increased 20-fold since 1964, reaching 311 million tons in 2014, the report says. It is expected to double again in the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050. New plastics will consume 20 percent of all oil production within 35 years, up from an estimated 5 percent today.

Plastic production has increased dramatically in the last 50 years. Photo credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The vast majority of plastics is not effectively recycled, either, according to the report. Only 5 percent is properly recycled, while 40 percent is sent to a landfill and a third ends up in the environment, including in the world’s oceans. Much of the rest is burned, which generates energy, The Guardian noted, but also causes “more fossil fuels to be consumed in order to make new plastic bags, cups, tubs and consumer devices demanded by the economy.”

The report provides a first-ever “vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste, and outlines concrete steps towards achieving the systemic shift needed,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said.

Our current economic model is largely linear. Photo credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

This vision is built on applying “circular economy principles” to global plastic packaging flows, which could “transform the plastics economy and drastically reduce negative externalities such as leakage into oceans,” the foundation explained. The report calls for a transition away from “today’s linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model” and towards an economy that is “restorative and regenerative by design” and which altogether eliminates the concept of waste (just as there is no concept of waste in natural systems).

The report concludes that the plastics industry is not doing nearly enough to address plastic pollution.

“Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy, with unbeaten properties,” Dr. Martin Stuchtey of the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, who helped produce the report, said. “However they are also the ultimate single-use material. Growing volumes of end-of-use plastics are generating costs and destroying value to the industry. After-use plastics could, with circular economy thinking, be turned into valuable feedstock.”

The report calls for a transition to a circular economy. Photo credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The report calls for smarter packaging, such as phasing out hard-to-recycle plastics like polyvinyl chloride and expandable polystyrene, redesigning plastic items so they can be reused better, rethinking their production methods to make recycling easier and developing compostable packing on a larger scale.

More Plastic, Fewer Oysters?

Posted by Carl Safina of The Safina Center on February 23, 2016
published on NationalGeographic.com , Co-authored by Erica Cirino

2016 started off with a dire prediction for the world’s oceans: By 2050, the seas will contain more plastic—by weight—than fish. There’s an estimated 8 -12 million metric tons of plastic making its way into the oceans each year. And as the plastic mess in the oceans grows, so do concerns over the health of the marine creatures living in it.

While it’s known that plastic bags and bottles pose a risk to sea creatures, a lesser-known threat is now coming to light, one that’s created when ocean waves and wind pulverize the plastic bags, bottles and other trash that ends up in the seas: “microplastics.”

These tiny plastic pieces are about the same size and shape as the algae eaten by some marine animals. How microplastics affect marine animals is not well understood.
Microplastic poses a growing concern in oceans and other aquatic habitats. (Image by 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University)
But in recent years scientists have found that crustaceans that consume microplastics have a hard time reproducing. Going off a hunch that microplastics may affect the fertility of other filter feeders, researchers at the French Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea started feeding oysters microplastics.

The researchers observed two groups of oysters: one fed a normal diet of algae and another fed a mix of algae and microplastics. The oysters fed the mixed diet swiftly sucked up the microplastics as easily as they did algae. After two months the researchers have found microplastics take a toll on both oyster digestion and reproduction.

Oysters that consume microplastics eat more algae and absorb it more efficiently, says Arnaud Huvet, marine physiologist at the French research center and lead author of the study. This is because oysters expend extra energy to pass plastic through their digestive systems, increasing the rate at which they digest algae.

While the digestion of microplastics diverts some energy away from reproduction, oysters’ ability to reproduce is almost halved: Female oysters produce fewer and smaller eggs while male oysters produce slower-swimming sperm. Offspring produce more slowly. The cause? Blame the chemicals that make up microplastics.

During digestion microplastics appear to leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into oysters’ bodies, says Huvet. These chemicals, also called “endocrine disruptors,” are known to lead to diminished fertility and an increased cancer rate in laboratory animals, wildlife and humans. They’re found in all kinds of everyday products, including cosmetics, pesticides and plastics.

Can the microplastics accumulating in oysters’ bodies harm the animals or humans that eat them? Right now, Huvet says, that’s unclear. But he points out his study adds to a slowly growing body of evidence highlighting the health impacts of plastic pollution in the oceans.

Safina Center Sustainable Seafood Program Director Elizabeth Brown-Hornstein agrees: “This study provides further evidence that plastic litter has far-reaching effects on the oceans and that there is an urgent need to take meaningful action to tackle this issue.”

Learn more about plastic and other marine pollution, and what you can do to help, here.

To rethink the future of plastics, start with packaging

Conrad MacKerron
More plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050. 95 percent of plastic packaging’s potential value lost after its first use. Only 14 percent of plastic packaging collected for recycling. Global waste disposal systems so challenged that nearly a third of plastic waste doesn’t even make it to the landfill, and instead is littered on land or swept into the ocean.
These are some sobering findings of "The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics," a report released last month by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in partnership with the World Economic Forum intended to move the circular economy a step closer from theory to practice.
The enormous waste of embedded value in plastic packaging has been going on for generations with scant attention often paid as landfills overflowed with discarded single use bottles, bags, plates and wrappers. 

The emerging awareness of the scope of ocean plastic debris and the potential for plastics to concentrate and transfer toxic chemicals into the marine food web and human diets finally may provoke enough concern from companies and policy makers to make ubiquitous plastic packaging a pilot program for the circular economy where it never becomes waste, but serves as nutrients for new products.

The report charts a path for transition to a circular path by first focusing on fostering a robust after-use economy through improving the economics and yield of recycling, reuse and composting. Reducing the dumping of waste onto land and oceans and decoupling plastics from fossil fuels are also important factors, but the report emphasizes that drastically improving the quality and economics of recycling, reuse and composting, is the cornerstone and first priority for a new plastics economy.

A five-point plan is proposed: engaging value chain players; forming a global plastics protocol to agree on design guidelines for optimal material use and processing systems; focusing technological innovation on projects with the most potential to improve materials sorting and processing at scale; promoting stronger secondary markets for collected materials; and exploring "the enabling role of policy" such as material, landfill or incineration bans and producer responsibility laws.

This effort by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its allies has a number of encouraging elements going for it, but the path is also fraught with challenges. Much of this has been proposed before in various forms. 

On the hopeful side, Europe seems primed to move. In December, the European Commission approved a circular economy package including $6.08 billion for improved waste management.

Greenhouse gas emissions by the plastics sector are expected to grow to 15 percent of the global annual carbon budget by 2050 so recycling can play a key role helping governments and global brands with GHG reduction. Increased recycling can reduce GHG emissions. Incineration and energy recovery, often promoted as alternatives to recycling, release the carbon embedded in plastics. 

The new data showing far more plastic waste is eluding collection and being swept into oceans than previously believed is elevating public concern about it from nuisance to potential global threat. About 8 million metric tons of plastic are estimated end up in the ocean each year, much of it packaging. Without significant intervention, that will result in a ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and more plastic than fish by weight by 2050. 

A few big consumer brands and value chain players are beginning to show interest. Ikea, Kimberly Clark, Marks & Spencer and Unilever were involved in the New Plastic Economy report, as were other critical parts of the packaging life cycle, such as Dow and Dupont, who make polymer packaging resins; packaging producer Amcor; and Suez and Veolia, which provide waste collection and recycling services.

It’s an appealing vision of potential new business opportunities for companies that could unlock job growth through advanced repair and manufacturing, and enhanced waste management and secondary materials production.

However, there are just as many challenges. The apparent energy seems centered mostly around European governments and retailers so far. In the U.S. there’s no evidence of strong promotion of a circular agenda by the EPA or federal policy makers equivalent to the EU’s action. U.S. retailers outside of the beverage sector remain largely silent on responsibility for the ocean debris mess, packaging waste and low recycling rates. 

The report’s proposed answer is ambitious — a global plastics protocol, where business and governments align around the best materials and practices. But is it realistic? It’s hard enough to get cities in the same county to collect and process the same materials, let along most countries.
But beneath polite phrases such as "alignment" lie hard choices such as banning certain plastic materials, which the plastics industry has opposed. 

While some municipalities and nations have banned various plastics, reaching global agreement on preferred materials is likely too much to expect. Many developing nations are preoccupied with providing basics such as food and shelter and lack post-consumer collection and recycling systems, or the resources to carry out existing laws.

A better approach might be one track for developed nations willing to move now and finance workable regional circular economy models; and a separate urgent effort aimed at using multilateral aid and producer fees to help developing nations build basic waste collection systems to stem the ocean plastics tide.  

This is where the big global brands need to step up on both accounts. Unilever, Procter & Gamble and others are using increasing amounts of non-recyclable plastic packaging in developing markets, much of which ends up in waterways. They need to acknowledge the impacts of their products as negative environmental externalities and factor those costs into future operations. Then need to start paying fees or providing significant aid, likely billions of dollars, aid to help developing countries where they sell products build recycling and waste collection systems.

Even developed nations are struggling with the economics of packaging recycling. These recommendations come at an especially challenging time for the U.S. recycling industry, where plummeting commodity prices for packaging materials such as plastic, glass and metals have slashed and often erased recyclers’ profits.

Yet there’s a silver lining — this crisis could force a much needed reality check for brands that commodity prices will continue to be volatile and that recyclers cannot build a business model based primarily on the value of recovered materials. Brands need to step up and pay their fair share to cover the added costs of processing their materials.

U.S. citizens historically have sent a strong message that recycling is a social good they want pursued and they are paying the cost for recycling not covered by commodities, not the big producer brands. In recent years, big U.S. consumer brands have avoided acknowledging responsibility, or taken only baby steps. The Closed Loop Fund makes more capital available for fixing infrastructure and market development, but avoids the key question of what ongoing financial commitment brands should be responsible for to relieve the costs of recycling and landfilling for taxpayers who have shouldered it for generations. 

There is room for optimism that the prospect of wise conservation of resources, job growth and reduction of GHG emissions afforded by the new plastics economy vision will attract a critical mass of global brands to support efforts to optimize the value of the materials they place on the market. This effort is badly needed to develop 21st-century caliber systems that will move plastic packaging from a one-way trip to the landfill to many useful round-trips protecting consumer goods.