Don't dismiss marine debris

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As a longtime member of the plastics industry deeply concerned with the issue of plastic marine debris, I feel the need to comment on Chandler Slavin’s Perspective in your Aug. 13 issue [Page 6].

In May, I participated in a three-week research expedition to the western edge of the North Pacific gyre. As an experiential learner I wanted to run my fingers through the debris and to see the issue through the eyes of the activists and scientists.

This expedition was led by Dr. Marcus Eriksen. I met Marcus, along with his colleague and wife, Anna Cummins of the 5 Gyres Institute, in 2007 at a Sustainable Packaging Coalition meeting where they presented shocking data and samples of plastic debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since then I have followed developments on this issue through blogs and on Facebook and Twitter, made observations during global travels and participated in many beach cleanups here in Rhode Island, “The Ocean State.”

I agree that a lot of the dialogue on the problem of ocean plastic debris is aimed squarely at the plastics industry and I spend a lot of time and effort trying to humanize our industry and to share the improvements and innovations being made in plastic packaging.

Before I left on my trip, I happened to speak with Kara Lavender Law, author of the paper cited in Ms. Slavin’s Perspective, and I can tell you Ms. Law is very concerned about the levels of plastic that the Sea Education Association has found in its trawls over the years. The fact that there is not a measurable increase in its data for the North Atlantic does not prove that there is any less plastic entering our oceans. In fact, another recent study shows that plastic debris in the North Pacific has increased one hundredfold over the last 40 years and increased by two orders of magnitude in the periods of 1987-92 and 1999-2010.

There are several factors that could explain an underrepresentation of reality by the study cited by Ms. Slavin. Ocean turbulence drives smaller microplastic particles downward into the water column beneath the depth that scientists sample. Also, about half of all plastics proc­essed are of a density heavier than water, which could mean that these study methods do not tell the whole story of the overall burden of plastics in our oceans.

On our 2,600-mile voyage, every one of our 45 trawls contained plastic and on average we sighted plastic on the surface every eight minutes.

Regardless of how you interpret the data, the SEA scientists reported as many as 200,000 pieces per square kilometer in the North Atlantic gyre. I have read more than 20 research papers and seen a lot of data from the other gyres indicating fragment counts as high as 400,000 per square kilometer. I have not talked with anyone in our industry that is OK with half a million to a million plastic fragments per square mile on the surface of the most remote areas of our oceans!

It would be good to think that some of the global regulatory and industrial initiatives are working, but from what I have seen firsthand and learned in my research, my belief is that the problem is getting worse, not better. Just last month there was a huge spill in Hong Kong that released tons of plastic pellets into the ocean, and social media is playing a critical role in the cleanup.

We should not shrink from this problem or waste precious time in denial, but instead focus all of our energy on solutions. Industry and consumers alike can benefit from more responsible plastic packaging, litter reduction, increased recycling rates and the growing movement toward extended producer responsibility.

Is this a tragedy? Yes!

Is it a regulatory issue? Yes!

Is it a societal issue? Yes!

Is it a plastics industry issue? Yes!

Is it a design issue? Yes!

Who’s to blame? All of us!

Social media adds a level of transparency to the issue and allows for many diverse voices to be heard. While some might shout louder than others, all voices count nonetheless. Before we disparage social media as a tool bent on undoing our industry, let’s embrace and learn from this most democratic of all communication channels.

We should be thankful for the scientists who devote their careers to research and solutions and for the passion of the bloggers shedding light on this issue and the dedication of the many volunteers participating in clean­ups and environmental advocacy.

I will continue to look to social media to test whether I am doing enough to make a difference and I encourage my colleagues in the plastics industry to do the same.

Brown is managing director with Packaging 2.0 Inc. in Jamestown, R.I.