To Address Plastic Pollution, We Need More than Symbolic Actions

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The buildup of plastic in the ocean is a real problem. During the past decade or so, U.S. and European lawmakers’ “answer” has come in the form of bans, regulations, or taxes on various single-use plastic products. Yet such policies will do little to resolve the issue because they don’t address the key sources of the problem — particularly the fact that the waste emanates from Asia, Africa, and South America.

After sampling trash found in an area of the ocean known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” where ocean currents trap waste, The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization, found that the primary culprits were not single-use plastics. Forty-six percent of the trash was composed of fishing nets, which, combined with ropes and fishing lines, amounted to 52% of the trash. Nets and ropes are a particularly bad problem for wildlife that get trapped in them. The rest included hard plastics ranging from large plastic crates and bottle caps to small fragments referred to as microplastics, comprising 8% of the floating debris.

Some single-use plastics may enter the oceans, but their impact is much smaller than one might expect. For example, Keep America Beautiful, an anti-litter nonprofit organization, maintains that straws represent less than half of a percent of plastics in the ocean.

Moreover, the lion’s share of the waste entering oceans today results from poor waste disposal practices overseas. A 2015 study published in the journal Science reported that China and 11 other Asian nations are responsible for 77% to 83% of plastic waste entering the oceans because of their poor disposal practices. Research produced by The Ocean Cleanup found that rivers constitute the major pathways for plastic litter to the ocean, with 80% of ocean litter emanating from 1,000 rivers, most of which reside in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Accordingly, banning straws and other single-use plastics in the United States or Europe won’t do much good. If lawmakers care about solving ocean pollution problems, they need to develop workable solutions.

The development of waste disposal infrastructure in other nations is perhaps the most difficult but important area to address. As nations grow economically, such services tend to develop, but efforts to facilitate and speed up the process would be desirable. The Ocean Conservancy said in a report on the topic that there is a growing desire within some Asian countries to begin developing sound waste management systems. Collaborative efforts among these nations and nonprofit organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy could prove valuable.

Efforts to police the fishing industry, perhaps via their private associations, could help prevent the dumping of nets and ropes in the ocean. Fortunately, there appears to be some progress in reducing the dumping of plastic nets into the ocean. Plastic materials scientist Chris DeArmitt explained in his book The Plastics Paradox: “A very detailed study over 60 years showed that the entanglement of animals in plastic nets did increase from the 1950s onward and peaked in the 2000s, but has since begun to decrease.”

Efforts to clean up plastics in the ocean are also underway. The Ocean Cleanup has developed some impressive technologies that it maintains could remove more than 90% of the waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. The technology includes equipment that collects the waste and removes it from the patch, as well as a device called The Interceptor that collects waste as it flows out of rivers into the oceans.

Read the full article at The Washington Examiner.