The elephant in the ocean: global plastic pollution

Written by Phyllida McNeile

I’ll never forget my snorkelling trip to idyllic Indonesia. Imagine white sandy beaches and a stunning maze of vibrant coral. Now litter the sand with chocolate wrappers and replace the sea bed with a colourful picture of carpeted plastic. This is the reality – our oceans are a giant dustbin. [1]

Eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped in the sea every year[2], forming floating islands of rubbish twice the size of Texas.[3] Curious animals entangle themselves in larger plastic debris often dying of starvation. Plastic particles are broken down by currents and sunlight forming smaller microplastics.[4] Fish and other animals mistake microplastics for food allowing it to enter the food chain. More than a quarter of fish now contain plastic.[5] You too have most likely eaten plastic in your favourite restaurant.

Plastic in an Albatross stomach was once found to come from a plane shot down 60 years ago 9,600 km away[6]

Plastic will outweigh fish by 2050 [7], I believe we have entered the ‘plastocene’ era in which 20th century civilisation will be defined.[8]

Plastic is a product of economic growth. Growth is sustained by throughput of resources- inputs of raw materials and outputs of waste. The ecosystem from which we obtain these resources however, is finite. Ask yourself, can economic growth be infinite within a finite world? The answer may appear obvious, but it is the greatest misconception of mainstream economics.[9]

The scale of our economy is physically too large relative to the ecosystem in which it sits.[10] Most environmental issues like plastic pollution, are caused by this inability to respect the limitations of what the planet can endure. The economy produces too much plastic waste to absorb and recycle it, therefore it is jettisoned. The short life span of the material means over six billion metric tonnes were discarded in the last 70 years, large quantities into the natural environment. Thanks to its immense durability, this is where it remains today.[11] Out of sight out of mind, right?

In my view, the ignorance of scale is short-sighted. Civilisation continues to misuse common resources like oceans, ignoring the services they provide.[12] We encroach on the system’s ability to recover. Eventually, future generations bear the cost of lost ecosystem services and pollution that we have caused. Growth can come at an opportunity cost in the long term.[13]

Then again, if we take scale in its literal sense -the physical volume of throughput, some argue it does not directly correlate with environmental degradation. It is true that some outputs are worse than others.[14] An output of plastic waste warrants negative connotations but the same can’t be said for a similar output in water vapour. We must remember not all growth is bad.

The preferred system is a sustainable one, where the production of resources is kept within earth’s natural capacity to regenerate raw materials and absorb waste.[15] The optimal scale is favoured, costs of production equal the benefits reducing the amount in our beloved oceans. Reductions in economic output are required for an optimal scale, an unfamiliar concept in an economic system preoccupied with growth.[16]

Put simply, we rely too much on growth, if we had acknowledged scale a long time ago our oceans wouldn’t be in this mess.

So, it seems modern economics is just as sick as the oceans it is polluting[17]. Nevertheless, it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are resolutions to the abundance of plastic pollution. Some in their early stages are biodegradable plastic and waste collection.[18]

Biodegradable plastic from renewable animal resources naturally degrades faster and has minimal environmental impacts.[19] Research is in its infancy so effects in sea water are yet to be fully understood.[20] Nets controlled and tracked by drones can collect huge quantities of waste from oceans.[21]  It does remain impossible to remove all ocean plastic due to its proliferation into microplastics. There is no sieve large enough!

Any attempt is to be rewarded, but these solutions require further research and investment and are supplementary to the wider answer of reducing economic scale. To stop the plastic entering the ocean we need to confront the source. The linear process of producing and disposing of plastic should be reconsidered as the scope for recycling is extensive.[22] In my eyes economic sanctions and legislation are effective incentives for firms and individuals to restrict scale because they encourage long-term improvements in efficiency, an even bigger benefit to sustainability.

I think it boils down to the simple yet often overlooked actions of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.[23] Intervention can only go so far, efficiency improvements are necessary. Resolving the issue of scale needs to be a social choice and behavioural change. The decision to be more sustainable is at the root of resolving plastic pollution.[24]

[1] Wabnitz, C and Nichols, W, (2010), ‘Editorial: Plastic pollution: An ocean emergency’, Marine Turtle Newsletter, Volume 20, Pages 1-4

[2]Montanari, S. (2017). ‘Plastic Garbage Patch Bigger Than Mexico Found in Pacific’ National Geographic, [online] Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/ocean-plastic-patch-south-pacific-spd/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].

[3] Kaiser, J. (2010). ‘The Dirt on Ocean Garbage Patches’, Science, 328 pages 1506-1506 see also, Sesini, M., (2011), ‘The garbage patch in the oceans: the problem and possible solutions’ Columbia University, New York.

[4] Woodall, L., Sanchez-Vidal, A., Canals, M., Paterson, G., Coppock, R., Sleight, V., Calafat, A., Rogers, A., Narayanaswamy, B. and Thompson, R. (2014). ‘The deep sea is a major sink for microplastic debris’. Royal Society Open Science, volume 1(4), pp.140317-140317.

[5] Forster, K (2016), ‘Microplastics in the se a growing threat to human health, United Nations warns’, The Independent, (online), Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/microplastics-microbeads-ocean-sea-serious-health-risks-united-nations-warns-a7041036.html, (Accessed 14/1117)

[6] Plastic Pollution Coalition (2015). Plastic in an Albatross stomach was once found to come from a plane shot down 60 years ago 9,600 km away. [image] Available at: http://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/pft/2015/9/5/midway-albatross-an-icon-of-the-plastic-pollution-problem [Accessed 8 Nov. 2017].

[7] Wearden, G, (2016), ‘More plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, says Ellen MacArthur’, The Guardian, (Online), Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jan/19/more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-sea-by-2050-warns-ellen-macarthur [Accessed 11 Nov. 2017].

[8] Schlossberg, T, (2017), ‘The Immense, Eternal Footprint Humanity Leaves on Earth: Plastics’, The New York Times, (online), Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/19/climate/plastic-pollution-study-science-advances.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0, (Accessed 13/11/17)

[9] Daly, H, (1992), ‘Allocation, distribution, and scale: towards an economics that is efficient, just, and sustainable’ Ecological Economics, 6(3), pp.185-193, see also Daly, H, (2008), ‘Ecological economics and sustainable development’, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar

[10] Ibid

[11] Schlossberg, T, (2017), ‘The Immense, Eternal Footprint Humanity Leaves on Earth: Plastics’, The New York Times, (online), Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/19/climate/plastic-pollution-study-science-advances.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0, (Accessed 13/11/17)

[12] Gibson, C, Ostrom, E, Ahn, T.K, (2000), ‘The concept of scale and the human dimensions of global change: a survey’, Ecological Economics, Volume 32, Issue 2, Pages 217-239

[13] Daly, H and Townsend, K, (1993), ‘Valuing the Earth, Economics, Ecology, Ethics’, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, London

[14] Dallmeyer, D and Ike, A, (1998), ‘Environmental Ethics and the Global Market place’, The University of Georgia Press, Athens

[15] Ibid

[16] Daly, H and Townsend, K, (1993), ‘Valuing the Earth, Economics, Ecology, Ethics’, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, London

[17] Blaug, M, (1997) pp 3 in Fullbrook, E, (2004), ‘What’s Wrong with Economics’, Anthem press, London

[18] Dallmeyer, D and Ike, A, (1998), ‘Environmental Ethics and the Global Market place’, The University of Georgia Press, Athens

[19] Demirbas, A, (2007), ‘Biodegradable Plastics from renewable resources’, Energy Sources, Part A: Recovery, Utilization, and Environmental Effects Vol. 29, Issue 5,2007, Pages 419-424

[20] Gross, M. (2013). Plastic waste is all at sea. Current Biology, 23(4), pp .135-R137.

[21] Sigler, M (2014), ‘The Effects of Plastic Pollution on Aquatic wildlife: current situations and future solutions’, water, air and soil pollution, Volume 225, issue 11, Pages 1-9

[22]Woodall, L., Sanchez-Vidal, A., Canals, M., Paterson, G., Coppock, R., Sleight, V., Calafat, A., Rogers, A., Narayanaswamy, B. and Thompson, R. (2014). ‘The deep sea is a major sink for microplastic debris’ Royal Society Open Science, 1(4), pp.140317-140317.

[23] Wabnitz, C and Nichols, W, (2010), ‘Editorial: Plastic pollution: An ocean emergency’, Marine Turtle Newsletter, Volume 20, Pages 1-4

[24] Gibson, C, Ostrom , E, Ahn, T.K, (2000), ‘The concept of scale and the human dimensions of global change: a survey’, Ecological Economics, Volume 32, Issue 2, Pages 217-239