Plastics ManagementPublished on 06.12.2020
10 min read
Marine Pollution: Diverse Responses
For millions of years, water in the world’s large ocean basins has been circulating on the surface, sometimes causing large areas of convergence where weaker currents allow for build-ups of floating waste. Build-up can be found in all oceans but also, less commonly, in closed areas such as the Mediterranean.
In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne’s Nautilus crosses the Sargasso Sea where the crew finds “brown weeds […], tree trunks ripped from the Rocky Mountains or the Andes and sent floating down the Amazon or the Mississippi, numerous pieces of wreckage, remnants of keels or undersides, bulwarks staved in”. Passive animals such as small turtles, eels and plankton have been swept along in the flow.
Since the 1950s, discarded plastics have considerably increased the phenomenon, and now account for more than 80% of total volumes. Contrary to what is often imagined, only 1% or 2% of this waste floats on the surface, and a similarly small amount washes up on beaches. Almost all of the waste lies on the sea floor; there is hardly any in the water column. The waste varies greatly in size and can be as tiny as microplastics (from 1 millimeter to 1/1000 of a millimeter) and even nanoplastics due to the slow decomposition of polymers.
What Are the Impacts?
This situation simultaneously impacts the environment, the economy and society.
Lost or abandoned fishing nets are a major environmental problem. Even if torn, these nets, which are now made from plastic, continue to catch or strangle marine animals, including large ones such as seals, dolphins and even whales. Almost 100% of the waste in the Azores is generated by fishing. In the Gulf of Lion, it is estimated that 2% to 3% of the fish stocks exploited by fishing fleets have been lost, not to mention all the other species.
Swallowing plastic particles is a phenomenon that affects all marine species, either because they filter the water or because they eat prey that has swallowed them. Turtles and birds from the procellariformes family are particularly sensitive to this problem. The impact on humans is less obvious: a Korean study estimated that only 5% of the microplastics we ingest come from seafood, while 9% comes from water and 85% from the air we breathe.
A third that is lesser known to the general public is the irregular movement of species, from to crustaceans and mollusks. After the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, nearly 300 species of macrofauna arrived in North America, carried by the waste. While such genetic mixing may have some positive aspects, it also contributes to the transmission of disease and can completely alter a species’ ecosystem.
On the economic front, the United Nations estimates that €8 million in financial losses are incurred worldwide every year due to events ranging from maritime accidents caused by shipwrecks to the clean-up of polluted coastlines.
Such a massive, global phenomenon inevitably calls for diverse solutions.
One avenue is to raise awareness among the population, especially young people. Ships that set out into the middle of the ocean to recover waste have no real quantitative impact and are above all human adventures. However, they do contribute to universal awareness, without which nothing is possible.
Another possibility is to give a “value” to waste. It is unrealistic to think that consumers, manufacturers or communities of any kind will make financial efforts or investments if there are no benefits associated with the collection or treatment of waste.
Consider these two examples. Fishing nets are often very expensive and if it were possible to salvage large pieces, repair them and sell them, this could become a viable business. A company in the Adriatic already specializes in this field. Likewise, cleaning up a tourist attraction costs a local community money but restores the value of the site, either in terms of tourism or heritage.
We’re not going to get rid of plastics. They are essential to make aircraft and vehicles lighter, improve medical equipment, insulate buildings and improve the safety of food products. But it is possible to curb the use of single-use packaging, which has no value, and to develop circular economy systems.
It is also essential to increase the number of recyclable materials. Research such as that on PDK, which can be disassembled into its original fibers, could give value to fully recyclable plastics. systems can appeal to both consumers, who may be interested in collecting used plastics, and the industry, which is attracted by the prospect of resale. Recovering waste on a large scale on land would dry up the plastic streams that end up in the seas and oceans.
Francois Galgani is an oceanographer and biologist who serves as Project Manager and Manager of the Bastia site at France’s Research Institute for the Exploration of the Sea (Ifremer). With 35 years of experience researching oceanography and environmental sciences (marine pollution, ecotoxicology and marine waste), he is a member of the European Commission’s “Horizon Europe – Healthy Oceans, Freshwaters and Coasts” initiative. Francois has also participated in numerous programs with the United Nations and other international organizations and has led several oceanographic campaigns throughout the Mediterranean.
Managing Plastic Waste Is Everybody’s Business
Plastics – never in the singular – triggered a revolution from the 1950s onwards, thanks to their diverse uses. There would be no space travel without the astronauts’ suits, no iMac launched by Steve Jobs without the ABS shells featured in the design, no robotics, no cell phones and no airbags. In addition, the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of medical masks, gloves, gowns, goggles, plexiglass barriers and respirators, not to mention the safety provided by fresh produce packaging.
Energy Savings and Emissions Reductions
Plastics play a major role in two essential sectors for the future of the planet: energy savings – and therefore CO2 emissions reductions – and food for Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants. Making airplanes and cars lighter is the most efficient way to reduce their energy consumption. This will also be the case for electric cars. In the home, plastics provide the best insulation. In shipping, if all plastic items were replaced with glass, metal or wood, the weight of the packaging would be multiplied by almost four, the energy consumed throughout its life cycle by more than two and CO2 emissions by almost three. And in the food sector, the use of plastics has resulted in better hygiene and, above all, reduced food waste, which is a global tragedy. Did you know that a cucumber wrapped in plastic will keep for 15 more days?
Despite now playing a major role in our lives, accounting for 40% of total usages, packaging clearly presents a major problem, namely that of end-of-life treatment. This is one of the challenges that the plastics industry has yet to resolve, even though it has already made progress.
A packaging ban is not the answer. We should be wary of purely symbolic measures and always ask ourselves the question: Is it effective and for what purpose?
Circular Waste Management
In this respect, the solution lies in what is known as a life cycle assessment of plastic products, which allows us to evaluate the environmental impact of products from their inception to the end of their use. The results can be improved by a more circular economy. This circularity is the key factor in the of our materials and their societal acceptance.
After a product is consumed – which can take from less than one year to more than 50 years – it becomes waste and follows one of two paths: it is either collected, or it is not collected, i.e., it is abandoned in the environment.
The collected waste can then be disposed of in one of three ways: - It can be landfilled. - It can be reconverted into energy (mainly by ). - It can be recycled and therefore returned to the circle.
The challenge – the second plastics revolution, so to speak – is to close the circle as much as possible. In other words, we need to block two of the channels for waste – non-collection and landfilling – and to develop recycling capacity. After being used, plastics must become a new resource and no longer be treated as waste.
From beginning to end, this “waste management” process concerns everyone, individuals, local authorities and the plastics industry alike.
Take the case of abandoned waste. Companies in the sector must eliminate accidental losses of pellets into the environment. Local authorities must take charge of waste collection and river clean-up systems. Designers could design a myriad of very simple innovations, such as lids attached to bottles. And, of course, individuals have to develop good habits. It would be doubly useful, for example, if the masks and gloves used during the Covid-19 crisis were properly disposed of in closed bags and not in recycling bins!
Landfills require action at the national level. Even in Europe, the most “virtuous” continent, there is still a huge disparity between countries. Although Switzerland, Germany and the Scandinavian and Benelux countries have practically eradicated this method, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain still have rates between 20% and 40%.
There is no doubt that the plastics industry has a role to play in regard to end-of-cycle management. Incineration recovers energy in the form of which, if used properly, is an important resource in the home and in industry. However, recycling is the real avenue we need to collectively focus on. Europe is a pioneer in this area, because in less than 15 years we have made enormous progress. We also have a voluntary target of 60% of plastic packaging in Europe being reused or recycled by 2030, compared to the 42% recycled in 2018. To this end, investment and research efforts are focused on chemical recycling, which can round out mechanical recycling.
Under these conditions, and with the upstream development of bio-based and more easily recyclable products, plastics will continue to be a driving force for progress in healthcare and safety, conserving resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Virginia Janssens has been Managing Director of PlasticsEurope since March 2020. Prior to this, she served as Managing Director of EUROPEN (European Organization for Packaging and the Environment), a European industry organization focusing on analyzing the environmental impact of packaging, particularly plastics. Virginia holds a Master’s degree in Political and Social Sciences from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and a Master’s degree in Intercultural Management from the ICHEC Business School in Brussels.