Naples, Fla. — Just across the street from the pristine beaches of the Gulf Coast, Steve Russell was talking about marine debris at Plastics News' Executive Forum and how the industry is working on solutions.
"We've got to do something. We're doing a lot now," said Russell, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council. He encouraged plastics executives to "show up for the hard discussions that are taking place."
"We need be engaged."
The proactive message, he said, is that plastics offer great solutions, and the industry is doing something about marine debris.
"Every single one of us in our business needs to know how to talk about this or our story won't be told," Russell said. "This is our opportunity to make this industry part of the solution so that we're here for the next decade and the decade after that, providing the environmentally sustainable products that society's going to need going forward."
Plastics packaging is taking some big hits. Russell showed slides of children digging through a mountain of garbage in Manila, Philippines. He talked about the well-known photos of fish ingesting pieces of plastic and that viral, hard-to-watch video of scientists pulling a plastic straw out a sea turtle's nose. And the BBC show "Blue Planet II," hosted by David Attenborough, shocked viewers with an episode showing plastic killing marine animals.
"Blue Planet II" has led many people and institutions in England to give up single-use plastics for Lent, including the Church of England and dozens of Tory members of Parliament.
Not smoking. Not alcohol. Not chocolate. Plastics.
Russell said ACC members realize that this is a major threat.
"The thing they all have in common is the vulnerability of plastics to competing materials," he said.
"They've been around awhile, and they remember garbage barges floating around New Jersey. They remember the beginning of the BPA [bisphenol A] scares. They remember the consumer doesn't distinguish one resin from another, and vulnerability shared by one is shared by all."
Russell said studies have shown that 8 million metric tons of waste goes into the oceans every year, from solid waste that is not collected, most of it from developing countries with significant populations clustered around the coasts or major rivers, without modern waste collection. When it rains hard, the trash, including plastics, gets washed out to sea.
Most of the waste comes from five countries, he said: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
"But there's nothing that is a problem of Southeast Asia. It's a problem of infrastructure," he said.
In the United States and around the world, legislation and regulations are happening. ACC supported the elimination of microbeads in cosmetics. But now the states of Rhode Island, California and Maine have proposed extended producer responsibility regulations. And bag bans have proliferated.
"Every nongovernmental organization in the world has now named marine plastic pollution as a primary issue," Russell said.
ACC and several major plastics companies are active in the Ocean Conservancy and its Trash Free Seas Alliance. They worked in partnership on a McKinsey Center for Business and Environment report that proposed ways to cut "leakage" of plastic from land-based sources by 45 percent by 2015 and eliminate it by 2035, at a cost of about $5 billion a year.
Russell said McKinsey concluded the main problem is the absence of modern waste handling systems in key industrializing nations. Proposed solutions include better waste collection, process for recycling, and starting an infrastructure for recycling and waste-to-energy programs, which Russell said probably would be gasification or pyrolysis.
Pilot projects would come in major metropolitan areas that have a large enough scale to make it work, he said. Funding would come from a combination of private capital and government financing.
Plastics trade associations around the world have signed a joint declaration pledging to work for solutions on marine litter. Since the declaration was completed in 2011, 69 plastics organizations and allied industry groups have signed it.
Last year, the Trash Free Seas Alliance and its plastics sector partners pledged to raise at least $10 million by 2020 for scientific research and build public support for addressing the problem.
The marine waste issue is fairly complex, Russell said, and simple solutions like plastics bans are not the solution.
"We've got to work together [as an industry], and we've got to work together with the policymakers who are tempted do it the easy way," he said.