Blog Viewer


Ocean Plastic Solutions

By EarthX Stories posted 06-24-2020 10:23


Like too many other dire challenges to Earth’s natural systems, plastic pollution in the oceans is visible, immense, and defies ready solutions.  

Nearly 400 million metric tons of plastic are manufactured annually, according to various market analyses. As much as 13 million tons of plastic ends up in oceans, causing an estimated $13 billion in economic damage to global marine ecosystems, according to the UN Environment Program. Unless the world changes its practices and embraces new technology, quickly, the volume and weight of plastics in the ocean in 2050 could be greater than all the fish in the seas, the World Economic Forum reported in 2016.

On June 10, 2020, the virtual EarthxOcean conference convened Ocean Plastic Solutions, a panel of scientists, activists, and authorities involved in understanding the dimensions of the confrontation and developing potential fixes. 

Moderated by Emma Carrasco, the National Geographic Society’s senior vice president of global engagement, the first half of the panel featured a striking exploration of new research by France’s Tara Ocean Foundation on the pervasive presence of micron-size plastic particles in oceans. Not only are the particles polluting the water column, they also are eaten by fish and aquatic mammals that can’t distinguish them from plankton. The consequence is that microplastic is now the latest recognized hazard to marine ecology and to human health. 

Romain Troublé, a biologist and the foundation’s executive director, explained that a year ago he and colleagues launched a seagoing mission to trace the origin of microplastics in the ocean. They sailed coastal Europe, from Finland to England to Italy, sampling the waters of the continent’s 10 major rivers, among them the Thames. The crew found the tiny plastic shards in virtually all of their samples. 

Based on findings in the river upstream of London, the scientific mission concluded that 60 percent of plastic that reaches the river are micro-plastic. “When you see the pollution in the rivers, so small, upstream of big cities, you realize the solution lies on land,” said Troublé. “This pollution is really in our backyards.”

Halting the tide of microplastics is an immense challenge in its infancy. Joao Sousa, marine project manager of the IUCN’s Global Marine Plastic Initiative, described Plastic Waste-Free Islands. In partnerships with governments and public interest groups, IUCN manages demonstration projects on three Pacific islands and three more in the Caribbean. The goal is to understand the sources and volume of plastic and identify critical points to stop what Sousa called “leakage.” 

  • Mark Herrema, the chief executive of Newlight Technologies, explored how his California-based company spent 17 years developing and scaling up production of a biodegradable natural polymer called PHA. Produced by every living thing, PHA can be molded and shaped with the durability of plastic. But the company’s trademark PHA product, called AirCarbon, is produced by feeding bacteria greenhouse gases -- oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane. The result is that AirCarbon, like a banana peel or a fallen tree, decomposes in the presence of sun and water.

The company has recruited several prominent customers, among them Dell Technologies, which wrap its computers in AirCarbon bags. “One of our major missions is to end the flow of synthetic material into the ocean,” said Herrema.  

Mary Crowley, executive director of Oceans Voyages Institute, described how her group has taken direct action to solve ocean plastic pollution. She dispatched a vessel last year to haul 42 tons of floating plastic garbage out of the north Pacific. Another second mission launched in May and a third is planned for July. The goal this year:  100 tons. “This is a problem we can solve,” she said.

Melati Wijsen, the 19-year-old co-founder of Bye Bye Plastics, explored six years of organizing, collaboration, and persistence that last year prompted Bali, Indonesia to ban plastic bags and straws, and styrofoam. A Bali native, she was raised in an ecological paradise. But as plastic debris accumulated, she and her sister organized an island-wide campaign. She has now emerged as one of the world’s prominent young leaders. “Invite us into the board rooms,” said Wijsen. “You may be surprised. Us kids may be 25 percent of the world’s population. But we are 100 percent of the future.”

Written by: Keith Schneider

More from EarthX

  • No data found