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Making the Most (and least) of Marine Trash

The world produces 300 million tons of plastic each year, but only about 10% is recycled. The rest is dumped, landfilled or escapes as trash into landscapes, lakes, rivers and the ocean. About 7 million tons end up in the ocean each year, making up roughly 75% of all marine debris.

Ocean trash contains many different types and sizes of plastic, each harmful—or even deadly---in its own way.

Nanoplastics, the tiniest bits that are not even visible human eye, come from cosmetics, face washes, toothpaste and other consumer goods as well as breakdown of larger particles. Some states have been working on banning such use of these particles.

Microplastics, in the millimeter size range, come mainly from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, including when we synthetic fleece in washing machines, but also from feedstock used in making plastic. They comprise most of the plastic in the oceanic ‘garbage patches.’

There is no way to get nanoplastics and microplastics out of the ecosystem, but both enter food webs because they are ingested by filter feeders and small fish, which gain no nutritional value, but do soak up toxins that leach from the particles or adsorb onto them, which scientists suggest can be passed on to humans as well as other wildlife.  

Microplastic sperules in tooth paste, about 30µm in diameter.
Photo credit: Creative Commons by Dantor. 

Large plastic items in marine trash include everything from cigarette filters, lighters, medical waste and plastic bags to lost or discarded lines or nets that can be miles in length.  These items can choke or entangle turtles, birds, dolphins, sharks, fish and other marine life. Worldwatch Institute reports that at least 267 species of marine wildlife are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, most of which is composed of plastic.  

Recently, California passed a statewide ban on the distribution of plastic bags by retailers. California is the first state in the U.S. to pass such a ban. Bans have been in place for years in various countries in the European Union as well as in China, Ivory Coast and Australia to name a few.

Reducing the input of plastics into the ocean is the only way to stop these problems, and the Ocean Recovery Alliance’s Plastic Disclosure Project lists a number of companies that are measuring, managing and reporting on their use of plastic.

Angel fish caught in an abandoned fishnet. Photo credit: Sijmon de Waal, Marine Photo Bank.

In addition to waste reduction, capture and creative re-use of plastic trash can help reduce the amount plastic pollution. Some projects, such as the Gyre expedition collect plastic trash to create art as a platform for discussing issues of plastic pollution.

Other imaginative projects are turning trash to cash, because even though it doesn’t belong in the ocean, it still has value.

One example is Bureo skateboards, which are manufactured in Chile through the company’s fishnet collection and recycling program. By providing fisherman with environmentally sound disposal sites for old nets, Bureo is able to collect materials for their skateboards while also decreasing the amount of pollution that would have otherwise ended up in the ocean, potentially strangling seals, birds, whales, turtles and others.

The Dutch designer clothing company G-Star Raw teamed up with singer, producer and designer Pharrell Williams to produce a line of denim clothing made with recycled ocean plastic.

AG-Star Raw storefront in Prague.
Photo credit: Creative commons by Hardstyler

San Francisco based Method partnered with conservation organizations in Hawaii to scavenge plastic trash and use it to make bottles for the soaps they produce.

Maine Float Rope Company turns rope reclaimed from the lobster fishery or washed up on shore, into colorful and durable doormats, providing employment for coastal residents and also offering a helping hand to the lobster industry. Because endangered right whales were getting entangled in lines that linked lobster traps together, in 2008 Maine lobstermen were required to switch to weighted lines that did not float up off the bottom. Rope had to be brought to collection stations along the coast, and Maine Float Rope Company found something to do with it that is useful and marketable.  

Interface, the world’s largest designer and manufacturer of carpet tiles, teamed up with the Zoological Society of London to start Net-Works, a project that gathers discarded fishing nets from the Philippine Islands and recycles them into carpet tiles. The project is another step in that company’s quest to have zero environmental impact by 2020. 

It will take businesses of all kinds and all hands on deck to reduce marine trash and improve ocean health in other ways, too. To that end, this month Conservation International, Ocean Health Index, New England Aquarium and  Environmental Performance Index are hosting two workshops with businesses that have been leaders in sustainable practices, as well as prominent environmental certification and reporting groups. The groups will brainstorm ways to integrate discussions of ocean health into business management decisions. While many companies are addressing issues such as clean water and carbon, many other ocean issues have not yet received similar attention. Through these workshops we hope to gain insights into what drives a successful initiative, what are the motivations and barriers, what successful ocean initiatives might look like and how the Ocean Health Index can help. Check back next month for a summary of what we learned.