Waste-Free Ocean

Of all the waste deposited in the ocean, perhaps the best known is the plastic debris that shows up on our beaches, in the stomachs of fish and shore birds, in the enormous floating "island" of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, assembled there by the confluence of currents, and by its preposterous scale, capturing the imagination of international media and the public. The situation is further exacerbated by the disintegration of plastic waste into microscopic particles that descend in the water column to intrude into the metabolism of marine species with serious implications for reproduction and survival. Plastic is not the only waste entering the marine ecosystem: human waste, toxic manufacturing by-products, run-off of agricultural fertilizers and pesticide, radioactive material, oil and gas spills, acid and other poisons resulting from the global mass consumption of carbon fuels add to what is the exponentially increasing decline of the ocean's capacity for future productivity, sustainability, and support for human survival.

The story is not new, and it is getting worse every day. What do we do about it?

We have seen the potential of recycling our waste: glass bottles, aluminum cans, and certain scrap metals have found an industrial scale technology and financial return, recovering and transforming these discarded products into new ones. Over 70 percent of newspapers and fiberboard, for example, are recycled and reformed into practical utility and new products.

But not plastic. In 2008, of the 33.6 million tons of post-consumer plastic waste in the United States, less than 15 percent was recycled or burned for energy; the balance was discarded into streams and rivers, and eventually into the ocean, or was buried in landfills where it will take centuries to decompose, leach chemicals and dyes into the groundwater, require some kind of expensive future remediation, and otherwise add insult to injury and be removed from the "circular" economy that recycling represents.

This is tragic waste of waste. Some 4 percent of oil consumed annually in the world is used to manufacture plastic, an annual expenditure of resources and energy that ignores the residual value of what has already been expended. As importantly, that volume is withheld from the myriad alternative re-uses identified: thread, yarn, and fiber for clothing and durable products, injection-molded packaging for meat and vegetables, floor coverings, traffic cones, strapping tape, hoses, trash receptacles, truck cargo liners, clothes hangers, park benches, flower pots and seedling containers, stapler bodies, toys, foam peanuts, composite railroad ties, and aggregates for road surfaces, curbs, and building construction -- these things, and many more, otherwise having to be made from new plastic with additional cost.

Because not all plastics are the same, there are different technologies required with varying operational and energy costs. This accounts for the very complicated identification codes found on plastic packaging, signaling the specific sorting required for recycling processes, a differentiation that complicates distribution and transportation, decreases the economic efficiency of any given treatment, and dissuades governments and individuals from investing the time and effort into maximizing the recycling movement. The resultant, less-than-profitable cost benefit has been a disincentive to adequate investment, particularly in the U.S. and in less affluent developing nations, and so the plastic accumulates worldwide and the problem compounds itself globally.

In a recent post (see Urban Mining) I discussed how gold, silver, copper, and other precious metals could be recovered from e-waste, the enormous amounts of discarded cell phones, tablets, televisions and computers, other electronic devices, medical instruments, junked cars -- a form of urban mining that can recycle these limited resources and obviate the need for new mining operations, particularly coast-wise or in the deep ocean, where other unique marine resources are coincidentally destroyed by a crude, expensive, and unnecessary process.
Plastic recycling should be the same. Even though the unit pricing is radically different (an ounce of gold versus a ton of plastic), the exponential volume and ubiquitous need argues for scaled financial investment and favorable comparable returns. Some government incentives have been created, and some innovative companies have attempted to exemplify the process with success. MBA Polymers, an American company with processing plants in China, Austria, United Kingdom, and the US, won the prestigious 2013 Katerva Award for "accelerating innovation for a sustainable future," by transforming such plastics into a pellet form for use in new products, expending less energy, conserving limited oil supplies, reducing carbon emissions, and reducing the landfill problem by keeping the plastic in circulation within the production system. Their inability to raise continuing adequate capital for expansion of this endeavor in the U.S. is a sad function of consumption-based conventional thinking, false calculation of corresponding value, and fragmented public concern.

There is hope, however. In Europe, we see the creation of a new organization, The Waste Free Oceans Foundation, dedicated to clean up of marine litter. In the U.S., we see local communities expanding their recycling efforts; municipalities, even states, prohibiting plastic bags; and grass roots organization boycotting wasteful practice and advocating for new behaviors. Is it possible that through such demands and changes, we might discover that there is enough plastic already extant in this world to meet our needs, and then some? Can we stop just throwing that plastic away? Can we convert that coastal trash and plastic island in the Pacific from a problem to a solution? Can we imagine and sustain a waste-free ocean?