Marine debris is a big problem for the plastics industry. According to the most frequently cited research, between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the ocean in 2010.
The future looks a lot worse. Population growth and improved standards of living around the world will mean millions more tons of plastic marine debris.
Plastics processors and suppliers need to help solve the problem. In fact, some major companies already are involved. Amcor Ltd. and Berry Global Inc. were among the presenters at the American Chemistry Council's Marine Debris Dialogue, held June 19-20 in Newport, R.I.
Other plastics industry presenters included Dow Chemical Co., recyclers Envision Plastics LLC, W2Worth Innovations LLC, Agilyx Corp. and Continuous Energy LLC.
Even better, they weren't talking to themselves. NGOs, academics and government experts were also in attendance and presenting. Big names included the 5 Gyres Institute, Algalita Marine Research and Education, Ocean Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund … the list goes on and on. It was an impressive lineup of people who care very much about the health of the ocean and who know more about plastics than PN readers may realize.
The experts don't talk about islands of plastic anymore. In fact, one presenter asked the crowd how many believed that garbage islands exist in the ocean gyres, and I didn't see any hands go up. That's good. That description helped mobilize public opinion in favor of plastic bans and taxes, but it was not accurate.
But the reality is just as serious.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) kicked off the event with a call for action: "I don't think we want to leave for future generations … oceans where there is more trash than fish. We have to do something about it."
Congress already is funding programs to research and deal with marine debris. It may not be enough, but in this political climate, the fact that it's getting bipartisan support is significant.
And he called for more. For example, Whitehouse said marine debris should be a priority issue in trade talks with Asian countries, which researchers say are the leading source of marine debris.
The fact that ACC called this meeting is a good sign. I remember 13 years ago when the plastics industry publicly clashed with environmental groups on marine debris outreach. That attitude is gone. Steve Russell, ACC's vice president for plastics, said there's now an awareness and a growing sense of obligation to do something and to do a better job of communicating.
"Our view is plastic litter in the environment is unacceptable," Russell said. Plastics have a lot of benefits to society, but those benefits won't matter if plastics hurt the environment, he said.
The NGOs, academics and government people spoke fairly candidly with the plastics executives at the meeting. They gave the latest statistics on the problem and explained the most difficult issues.
Take microplastics, as an example. That's a problem caused both from deteriorating plastics products and from fibers — basically, every time anyone does laundry. Chelsea Rochman from the University of Toronto pointed out that anyone who eats seafood is ingesting microplastics. That's a potential impact on our food security.
"It's cause for concern. It is not yet cause for alarm. We need a lot more research," Rochman said.
Looking at the big picture, it's clear that a key to dealing with marine debris will be improving the waste management infrastructure in places like China, Indonesia and the Philippines. That takes money and requires big changes in behavior, but efforts are already underway.
But that alone won't solve the problem.
What role does the plastics industry play in fixing this? Many NGOs think certain plastic products should be banned, including plastic bags and polystyrene foam food-service products. But the conference didn't focus on that.
Instead, I heard suggestions like putting chemical markers in plastic fishing gear so researchers can track the source of abandoned equipment. That suggestion came from Elizabeth Hogan of World Animal Protection, who also mentioned an effort to improve the design of plastic strapping so it does not entangle marine life.
Bob Benson, national program lead for the Trash-Free Waters program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had a long list of suggestions for plastics companies.
The first is a no-brainer: The plastics industry needs 100 percent participation in Operation Clean Sweep. Benson called for a full-court press to get that done.
Another idea: Plastics companies need to get involved in community cleanup efforts in every location where they have a plant. Keep America Beautiful has programs everywhere. And if companies want to do more, they can sponsor equipment that automatically removes plastics from rivers and streams.
"The [plastics] industry needs to lead the way to trash-free waters," Benson said. "I think the issue is going to get hotter and hotter for the business community and for all of us. The moment of opportunity to [voluntarily] do something about it is getting shorter."
Benson, and others, called for the plastics industry to make products easier to recycle. There was some disagreement on that, since it involves buy-in from brand owners and consumers. But when someone from industry pointed out that consumers like the convenience of plastic packaging, the NGOs pushed back. There's a distinction between packaging and product, they said. Consumers at a coffee shop aren't buying the disposable cup; they're buying a cup of coffee.
Stiv Wilson, campaigns director for the Story of Stuff Project, pointed out that while the plastics industry attendees heard from many NGOs at the meeting, there are many more who weren't in the room who may not have been as polite in their criticism of plastics. But industry shouldn't be afraid to engage with them — or with him.
"This problem is growing exponentially. I would take this very seriously," Wilson said.
After moderating most of the two-day program, I have a better perspective on the issue and on what's been proposed to deal with it. There are some problems that are going to be very difficult to solve.
From the podium, I was careful to avoid characterizing the dialogue as a meeting between industry representatives and environmentalists. People in the plastics industry consider themselves environmentalists, too. I saw evidence of that at the conference in presentations from companies like Amcor, Berry, Envision and Dow. They may approach issues differently from NGOs, but they feel like they are having a positive impact, and they want to help.
In the same way, I feel like many researchers and NGOs are becoming a part of the plastics industry. Maybe a noisy, not always welcome part. But they have a critically important role in pushing industry to make changes that will minimize, and eventually reduce, marine debris. And, maybe most importantly, in helping to push consumers, brand owners and government officials to help solve the problem.
Industry people may sometimes disagree with how the critics talk about plastics, but without dialogue there's no opportunity to influence the debate.
"We would see this as a failure if it was the end of the discussion," Russell said. So here's hoping that the dialogue continues and that there's progress to report at the next meeting.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "The Plastics Blog." Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.