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U.S. State Department hosts meeting on plastic in marine debris

By: Gayle S. Putrich

June 20, 2014

WASHINGTON — Pledges to reduce plastic marine debris were major components of a two-day crash course in ocean protection hosted by the U.S. State Department in Washington and Secretary of State John Kerry.

What was missing was the usual maligning of plastics or calling for sweeping bans.

“Why do we use so much plastic? Well, because it’s great!” said Daniella Dimitrova Russo, CEO of Think Beyond Plastic. The problem with plastic, she said, is that the essential properties that make plastic such a versatile and desirable material in so many applications become design flaws when it comes to the sea, particularly its lightweight nature and its chemical effects.

“Plastic lasts forever,” Russo said. “Yet we increasingly use it to make single-use products.” Exponential growth in plastics processing since the 1950s has not come with an end-of-life plan for the products, she said, a problem that extends well beyond the United States.

“Above all, our ability to collect plastic lags severely behind our consumption rate,” she said, and while hundreds of environmentalists and groups mostly tell people not to use plastic, “that’s not a good enough answer.”

Russo called for more innovation in dealing with waste plastic, calling it “a great investment opportunity.” She also introduced the Think Beyond Plastic Innovation Forum, which at its heart, she said, is business accelerator and investment fund aimed at helping create and commercialize alternatives.

A mix of industry representatives, senior government officials, scientists, environmentalists and foundations from more than 80 countries attended the June 16-17 “Our Ocean” conference in Washington. The event was aimed at increasing awareness and highlighting the importance of marine issues in business decisions and foreign policy matters.

New initiatives and pledges of financial support were widespread at the event.

Actor and philanthropist Leonardo DiCaprio pledged $7 million over the next two years for marine protection projects under the DiCaprio Foundation banner. President Barack Obama, in a video message to the more than 400 attendees, launched a new effort to protect U.S. marine landscapes, including expanding the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument and nominating marine sanctuaries off U.S. coasts and in the Great Lakes. The president is also directing federal agencies to develop a comprehensive program for combating seafood fraud and the black-market fish trade.

“But for this effort to succeed, it has to be bigger than just one country,” Obama said.

Brian Flaherty, vice president of public policy at Nestle Waters North America, discussed plastic marine debris and the company’s “zero waste” efforts, particularly focusing on plastic bottle recycling and reuse.

Nestle Waters is moving from the “source to shelf” responsibility view to a “cradle to cradle approach,” Flaherty said, starting with container design and light weighting and eventually implementing market-based recycling, which would include the cost of recycling in the price of their bottled water. The company’s ZephyrHills brand, which sources its water from Florida, has made an agreement with organizations In Tampa Bay to conduct an eight-month cleanup and education program for the area, Flaherty announced in D.C.

The plastics industry itself was well represented with the American Chemistry Council’s President and CEO Cal Dooley, who was invited to speak about the plastics industry’s role in launching public-private partnerships and other cooperative action to prevent plastics from reaching our oceans in a closed session, alongside Society of the Plastics Industry President and CEO Bill Carteaux.

Carteaux said the event provided a unique opportunity, not only for global networking and forming partnerships but also for groups and individuals trying to tackle marine debris and other issues to actually talk about the problems and possible solutions, face to face.

“I heard it from four different people, NGO people… ‘plastics isn’t the problem, people are’,” Carteaux said. “We are a wasteful society and we throw a lot of things away. It’s a plastics issue but it’s also an aluminum issue, a glass issue… but it is a major plastics issue and it was very encouraging to hear people outside our industry say that.”