Detroit — Public service spots in the early 1970s showed Iron Eyes Cody clad in a Native American costume shedding a tear about trash fouling the land. Keep America Beautiful.
But nearly five decades later, litter has fallen off society's radar screen — litter on land, that is, according to a civil engineer speaking at Antec 2019. But litter in the oceans? That's a different story.
"We have forgotten this litter awareness over a period of time. I've just seen it evaporate in my lifetime to the point where there's such a thing as 'litter blindness,' and it's worldwide," said Thomas Sprehe, senior vice president at KCI Technologies Inc. in Sparks, Md., just north of Baltimore. "I've been in the nicest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro. Million-dollar houses. And the streets are just covered with litter, outside. It's just an incredible ability to be blind to something that is so obnoxious and gross. But for some reason, [litter blindness] is a little less prominent when it gets to marine litter. You see litter in the water; it's incredibly powerful, sort of an eye-catching thing."
Sprehe was one of the speakers at a session on ocean plastics at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Antec conference in Detroit. The diverse range of speakers covered a technical look at how ocean plastics break down, biodegradability and Sprehe's topic: how to set up trash barriers where a river empties into the sea.
Litter starts on land, then if it's not properly disposed of, it can end up in the river then into a larger body of water. Rivers end up being good trash collectors, he said. Once it gets into the ocean, plastic waste is hard to remove.
"You can take a large area — 60 or 70 square miles of land — and compress that litter into the mouth of the river. And you've got a chance to get it before things go completely crazy, in terms of cost and difficulty," Sprehe said. He is also KCI's director of innovation and technology.
One problem is that government policies for ocean waste still largely focus on the sewer overflow model: When it rains really hard, stormwater and sewage runoff runs through combined sewer overflows, and the foul stuff gets diluted. But in the case of plastic, Sprehe said, the problem gets worse the more rain you get. Sprehe said regulations are starting to recognize the problem of waterborne plastics.
Sprehe said Europe is far ahead of the United States in dealing with the issue as well as moving to a circular economy.
He put up slides of simple booms strung across the mouth of rivers. The problem is, once the plastic builds up, how do you remove it from the middle of the river?
Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council's plastics division, was on a panel discussion at the ocean plastics session. Earlier, he addressed the issue in a keynote speech during Antec.
"Our system has failed to keep up with the pace of growth and access to consumer goods," he said.
Much of the ocean waste comes from developing countries in Asia that do not have adequate trash collection systems, Russell said. Rain washes the plastic away, eventually to the ocean.
To help tackle the global ocean plastics problem, industry companies have created the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, raising $1 billion.