Ocean Currents » plastic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Tue, 24 Nov 2015 20:06:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 We Can Solve the Ocean Plastic Problem http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/30/we-can-solve-the-ocean-plastic-problem/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/30/we-can-solve-the-ocean-plastic-problem/#comments Wed, 30 Sep 2015 23:24:41 +0000 Andreas Merkl http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10799

Today, Ocean Conservancy released a major report: Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean. We think it’s a big deal. It squarely addresses one of our biggest worries: the avalanche of plastic that cascades into the ocean every year.

It’s getting really bad. Practically every kind of animal, from plankton to whales, is now contaminated by plastic. It’s in the birds, in the turtles, in the fish. At the current rate, we could have 1 ton of plastics for every 3 tons of fish by 2025.

This is nobody’s plan. It’s not the plan of the plastics industry, it’s not the plan of the consumer goods industry and it’s certainly not the plan for those of us who love and need the ocean. Nobody wants this.

The problem is born on land. Most of the plastic originates in rapidly industrializing countries whose waste management infrastructure is lagging behind. This is a typical phase of development that all countries go through. The problem is simply that the enormous utility of plastic, combined with the explosive economic growth of Asia and Africa, combine to yield an enormous flow of unmanaged plastic waste into the ocean.

This was originally posted on Huffington Post. To read the rest of this blog, please click here.

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Another Brick in the Wall: Plastics in the Seafood We Eat http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/24/another-brick-in-the-wall-plastics-in-the-seafood-we-eat/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/24/another-brick-in-the-wall-plastics-in-the-seafood-we-eat/#comments Thu, 24 Sep 2015 21:50:31 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10770 Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.

Photo: Susan White / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If you have been reading my recent posts, you have noticed that I have been discussing the emerging science on plastic pollution in the ocean and exploring what we need to do to stem the tide. It started in February, when a groundbreaking study showed that 8 million tons (nearly 17 billion pounds) of plastic flows into the ocean each year, mostly from a small number of Asian nations where local waste management can’t keep up with rapidly growing plastic use. Then scientists estimated that nearly all the worlds’ seabirds will be contaminated by plastics by 2050 unless conditions don’t change.  And a study published only days later showed that half the globe’s sea turtles are likely to suffer the same fate. Today, we need to think carefully about the latest study, showing that plastics can be found in many of the fish that we eat. We don’t yet know if eating plastic-laden fish negatively impacts our health, but today’s study is another brick in the growing wall of scientific evidence that demonstrates that plastics are a major threat to the global ocean and ultimately, ourselves.

Roughly a quarter of fish sampled from fish markets in California and Indonesia contained manmade debris—plastic or fibrous material—in their guts, according to a new study by Dr. Chelsea Rochman from the University of California, Davis and colleagues from Hasanuddin University in Indonesia. The study, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, is one of the first to directly link plastic and man-made debris to the fish on consumers’ dinner plates. The researchers sampled 76 fish from markets in Makassar, Indonesia and 64 from Half Moon Bay in California. All of the manmade fragments recovered from fish in Indonesia were plastic. In contrast, 80% of the debris found in California fish was fibers while not a single strand of fiber was found in the Indonesian fish.

These patterns appear to be related to differences in waste management in the two countries. Indonesia has little in the way of landfills, waste collection or recycling, and large amounts of plastic are tossed onto the beaches and into the ocean and waterways. Meanwhile, the U.S. has relatively advanced systems for collecting and recycling plastics. Indonesia ranks second for mismanaged waste globally, producing ten times more mismanaged waste than the twentieth ranked United States. In contrast, most Californians wash their clothing in washing machines, the concentrated wastewater from which then empties into the ocean from more than 200 wastewater treatment plants along the coast. Rochman theorizes that fibers remaining in sewage effluent from washing machines were ingested by fish swimming offshore of the state.

So now we know that plastics are in the fish that we eat, fish like anchovy, rockfish, striped bass, Chinook salmon, sanddab, lingcod and oysters. What we don’t yet know is whether this puts our health at risk. But there is growing cause for concern. Scientists have shown that plastics contain a range of hazardous chemicals that are used during their production and also adsorb toxic chemicals once they reach the ocean. There is evidence that some of these chemicals can become bioavailable to a range of species from lugworms to seabirds to fish. Rochman and her colleagues conclude that “chemicals from anthropogenic debris may be transferring to humans via diets containing fish and shellfish, raising important questions regarding the bio-accumulation and bio-magnification of chemicals and consequences for human health.” Clearly more research is needed to quantify these risks and weigh any risk against the other well-known benefits of consuming seafood.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are committed to stopping plastics from getting into the ocean in the first place. If we can keep the ocean clean, we can keep plastics out of our seafood – and ourselves.

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Ocean Plastic Pollution: Groundhog Day, But This Time with Sea Turtles http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/15/ocean-plastic-pollution-groundhog-day-but-this-time-with-sea-turtles/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/15/ocean-plastic-pollution-groundhog-day-but-this-time-with-sea-turtles/#comments Tue, 15 Sep 2015 18:08:27 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10737

Olive Ridley sea turtle. Photo by: Matthew Dolkas.

I got a kick out of Groundhog Day, the comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell that was released in 1993. With Murray waking each day to relive Groundhog Day alongside Punxsutawney Phil and his co-anchor, the movie was lighthearted and fun. But the science of ocean plastic pollution is starting to feel a lot like Groundhog Day. And the storyline is becoming much more troubling with each new publication.

This week a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biology calculates that over half of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic; this follows on the heels of a publication last month by some of the same scientists that predicted that nearly all of the world’s seabirds would be contaminated with plastics by 2050 unless action is taken soon. With each new publication, the case for a global strategy to stem the tide of plastics into the world’s oceans becomes ever more vital.

Qamar Schuyler is lead author on this study alongside Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty (members of an independent scientific working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis that Ocean Conservancy convened in 2011) and four other ocean experts. The team applied the same analytical approach used in Dr. Wilcox’s seabird analysis, with disturbingly similar results. By integrating global maps of plastic in the ocean and sea turtle distribution, they showed that these endangered animals are most at risk of plastic ingestion in hotspots along the coastlines of southern China and Southeast Asia, and the east coasts of Australia, the United States and southern Africa. Olive Ridleys are the species at greatest risk because of its broad diet, oceanic life style, and its tendency to selectively ingest plastics. Kemp’s Ridleys are the species least at risk because of its tendency to eat animals that live on the bottom of the ocean, rather than forage at the ocean surface.

Due to limited data, the authors couldn’t determine the population and species level impacts of their findings; but given that as little as 0.5 gm of ingested plastic can kill a juvenile turtle, there is clearly cause for concern. Just as for seabirds, contamination rates for sea turtles have increased over time and Schuyler estimates that 52% of the world’s remaining sea turtles have plastics in their gut. That number is 62% for the world’s seabirds. Groundhog Day indeed.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are responding decisively to this onslaught of new science. We are now leading an effort to stem the tide of plastics from the regions that are the greatest source of plastics to the ocean, currently rapidly industrializing countries in Asia. Schuyler’s study confirms that this region is a critical beachhead in our campaign against ocean plastic pollution. Our team is also actively planning a November 2015 meeting of our Trash Free Seas Alliance ® to confront the consequences of this emerging science head-on and to advance plans to solve this problem at scale. The Alliance brings together conservationists, industry leaders, and scientists with a common purpose of keeping marine debris out of our ocean and waterways. Long the responsibility of individual consumers and cash-starved governments, plastics in the ocean is increasingly a problem that requires private sector leadership and resources to help solve, an issue that is at the center of our work with the Alliance.

The good news is Groundhog Day came to an end and Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell lived happily ever after. In the ocean, sea turtles and seabirds can have a happy ending too, but only if we collectively commit to stemming the tide of plastics that is increasingly contaminating the ocean’s wildlife.

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Plastics in Seabirds: A Pervasive and Growing Problem That Requires Global Action http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/31/plastics-in-seabirds-a-pervasive-and-growing-problem-that-requires-global-action/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/31/plastics-in-seabirds-a-pervasive-and-growing-problem-that-requires-global-action/#comments Mon, 31 Aug 2015 22:31:55 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10696

You have likely seen the pictures of albatross chicks chocking on plastics. These images are tough to look at and the death these birds suffer from ingesting plastics is gruesome and painful. Albatross consume a whole range of plastics that float in the ocean, from cigarette lighters, to toothbrushes to shards of plastics from a huge variety of other plastic products. As a conservation organization, Ocean Conservancy is deeply troubled by the impact of plastics on these magnificent birds. But how pervasive is this problem, really? A new paper in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS gives us a disturbing answer. It turns out plastics in seabirds is a very big deal. It is global, pervasive and increasing. And it has to be stopped.

The research published today was done by Drs. Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty from CSIRO in Australia and Dr. Erik van Sebille from Imperial College in London. It is the result of an independent scientific Working Group convened by Ocean Conservancy at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is the same group that recently demonstrated that 8 million tons (17 billion pounds) of plastics enters the ocean each year, much of it from Asia. This week’s publication shows the consequences of this plastic avalanche. Using global historical data from publications over the last few decades on the presence of plastics in the stomachs of 135 species of seabirds from all around the world, the authors show that plastic contamination is increasing and they predict that 99% of all seabird species will be eating plastic by 2050 unless something is done to stem the tide. Surprisingly, seabirds that may be most at risk of plastics are those that lived at the Southern Ocean boundary in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, far from the well-known “garbage patches at the center of the ocean’s gyres. While plastics are less abundant there compared to the gyres, this is where seabirds are most common – and thus at greatest risk of exposure to plastics. Contamination rates have increased from about 26% historically to approximately 65% today; if the trend continues, nearly all species of seabird – and almost 95% of all individuals – will be exposed to plastics by 2050. So this isn’t just about albatross; it’s about ALL seabirds including penguins, fulmars, auklets, prions, storm petrels and the many other species that spend the majority of their lives living over the ocean.

Read the entire article at National Geographic’s website.

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In Peru, A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Pounds (of Trash) http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/22/in-peru-a-pictures-worth-a-thousand-pounds-of-trash/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/22/in-peru-a-pictures-worth-a-thousand-pounds-of-trash/#comments Fri, 22 May 2015 12:00:50 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10213

I had the great fortune to head south of the equator last September for Ocean Conservancy’s 29th International Coastal Cleanup. VIDA Peru, Ocean Conservancy’s longtime Cleanup partner in Peru, invited me to participate in a weeklong series of events on ocean trash, culminating with one of their country’s signature Cleanup events at Marquez Beach. Having been my first time to Peru, and South America for that matter, I was uncertain of the beach and waterway conditions I’d find. Unfortunately, as I spoke more and more with folks from VIDA Peru in advance of the Cleanups, my expectations of clean beaches were quickly dispelled.

I asked Arturo Medina, President of VIDA Peru, what the major culprits were for ocean trash in Peru. He noted that “the waste infrastructure is drastically lacking in Peru to handle the increased waste flows. Ultimately, it all ends up in the rivers, on the beaches and flowing into the sea. Legal and illegal dumpsites located directly on the beaches are also a major issue, yielding steady streams of debris into the water.” I witnessed this first hand as one such site was visible on the beach as I sat on my surfboard offshore—dump truck after dump truck offloading rubbish onto the sand.

And while I thought I got a taste of the debris conditions on the beaches in downtown Lima, I was not prepared for what I encountered at the Marquez Beach Cleanup Beach. 50,000 residents live amongst the unacceptable conditions in Marquez, dealing with both debris flowing down the town’s river and the massive accumulations of trash on their beach. Ursula Carrascal, VIDA’s Cleanup Coordinator, explained to me that 30 years ago Marquez residents could clean their clothes and fish in the river. Today, no one would even think of doing such activities.

When the time finally came to roll up our sleeves and clean Marquez, the local community came out in force. Over the course of two hours, 300 volunteers under the direction of VIDA Peru, removed 26,000 pounds of trash from a half-mile stretch of beach. As on other beaches, plastics dominate the rocky shore but truly anything you can imagine can be found on Marquez:  syringes, toy soldiers and vials of blood were all among the items I picked up. In 2013, volunteers found an undetonated grenade on the same stretch where the children of Marquez play daily. And Marquez is just a microcosm of Peru’s countrywide Cleanup effort—in total, more than 18,000 volunteers removed 540,000 pounds of trash from their country’s beaches and waterways during the one-day effort

As I congratulated Ursula on a tremendous event, she tells me in a forlorn voice, “Thanks…but it will all be back in two weeks.” I turn my gaze to the ocean and see exactly what she’s referring to—with each crashing wave new accumulations of trash wash onto the rocky shore. And beyond the physical challenges presented by continuous debris accumulation, Ursula shares with me her frustration and concern for future generations in Peru:

“I’m just frustrated. Most of our children here in Lima have never seen a clean beach. How can we get children to care when a trashed beach is all they know. We need 2,000 people on every beach just to make a dent.”

The situation is not hopeless though. Through the tireless efforts of organizations like VIDA Peru, conditions are changing—slowly, but changing nevertheless. Over the past several years, businesses and residents in Lima have increasingly become aware of the importance of waste management and new recycling systems has yielded a significant reduction in the number of bottles and other recyclable plastics found in Lima and on nearby beaches.

As evident from my time in Peru, the problem in Marquez, and places like it around the world, isn’t as simple as people littering on the beach. It’s about the rivers and streams filled with trash that all funnel into our ocean.

The only way we can stop this vicious global cycle is to stop trash at its source. If we provide the means to establish locally appropriate waste management solutions in the places that need it most, we can stem the flow of plastics into the ocean, ensuring healthier communities and more resilient marine ecosystems.

And whether in Peru, the Philippines, or Pennsylvania, every kid deserves the right to play on clean beach.

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Saving the Oceans from Plastic: A Field Report from Belize http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/20/saving-the-oceans-from-plastic-a-field-report-from-belize/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/20/saving-the-oceans-from-plastic-a-field-report-from-belize/#comments Wed, 20 May 2015 12:30:52 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10224

Some people would call Belize paradise.  Having recently returned, I can’t say I disagree, but I also saw threats to the beauty on the surface. I spent a week in Belize researching the connection between waste management, plastic pollution and ocean health in this Central American country. As Chief Scientist, I’m working closely with our Trash Free Seas® team to build on our 30-year history of protecting our ocean from the growing threat of ocean trash.

I toured much of the country with independent consultant Ted Siegler from DSM Environmental Services, gaining a firsthand perspective on how recent investments in waste management systems in Belize are improving ocean health but learning how much farther the country needs to go. A former British colony, Belize is frequented by tourists for its beautiful beaches and tropical breezes. But Ted and I visited many sights never seen by these outsiders. The upshot? Trash is a major problem in Belize, as it is in many developing countries.  And it is increasingly clear that this has big consequences for the health of the ocean.

My trip came at a key time. Just recently, a groundbreaking study was published in the prestigious journal Science which, for the first time, quantified the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean. A staggering 8 million metric tons of plastic (~ 17 billion lbs) enter the ocean each year, mostly from rapidly industrializing countries where plastic production and consumption is outpacing the ability of local entities to handle the waste. This problem is predicted to double in the next decade unless something is done to stem the tide. These research findings are the result of a working group initiated 3 years ago by Ocean Conservancy at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The findings of the Science paper were brought into sharp focus in Belize.  We learned that the country’s waste management system is similar to that of the United States back in the 1950’s.  Across the country we find open pit, burning dumps. Some are associated with towns like Belize City, Belmopan, Placencia, and Hopkins but smaller, informal dumps also mar the landscape, each a smoldering mass of burning plastics and other materials. Many of these dumps are in low-lying coastal mangroves which are flooded during the rainy season, from king tides, or from storm surge. The most striking example we saw was on the outskirts of Placencia where a vast array of plastics was literally spilling into the coastal lagoon.

The good news is change is coming.  After a massive fire at the Belize City dump in 2009, the government took notice. The fire burned out of control for months, covering the city in dense, acrid smoke and forcing a partial evacuation of the city because of severe air pollution. In response, the International Development Bank (IDB), in collaboration with the central government, co-funded a $14 million US dollar project to develop a formal collection and disposal system throughout the central corridor of the country, where some 50% of the population lives.

Our research expedition to Belize yielded a number of important insights.  It is clear that international collaboration can drive needed infrastructure improvements in developing countries, especially with a strong commitment by the host government and sufficient international financial aid. However, instituting a long-term economic model that makes the system financially self-sufficient is a major challenge. Governments have very limited resources to bring to the table and are buffeted by competing public service demands. Most plastics have limited economic value at present, further complicating the economic calculus. In Belize, as in many developing countries, an informal waste collection community (sometimes called ‘waste pickers’) has formed at the dump sites. Plastic containers for which there is a deposit fee (e.g. some plastic beverage bottles) have the most inherent value and thus are often efficiently recaptured and reused. But large volumes of other plastics, including massive amounts of film plastic (bags, sheeting, wrappers, etc) with little to no value at present is largely ignored by the waste pickers and thus lost to the landfill or disposed in the ocean.

At Ocean Conservancy, we believe we must implement a mechanism to put a larger value on plastics so these materials are recovered and not lost to the ocean. We conclude that the private sector – those that produce and profit from plastics – has a responsibility to help solve the end-of-life problems that we witnessed in Belize. A collection and recycling system that captures all the plastic and is economically sustainable in the long run needs the plastic industry’s ideas, know-how and financial resources.

Government can’t do this on its own. But it is clear that the health of the ocean depends on it.

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(E)PS, We Don’t Love You http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/01/12/eps-we-dont-love-you/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/01/12/eps-we-dont-love-you/#comments Mon, 12 Jan 2015 18:11:08 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9685

New York City officially became the largest U.S. city to ban expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam last week! The momentum for EPS bans has been steadily increasing, and more than 70 cities have made the cut!

Frequently used for take-out containers, disposable drink cups and other single-use products, EPS is a hazard to our environment—not only because of its brittle nature and propensity to fragment into small pieces—but also because it can’t be recycled, economically. This is compounded by the fact that we use so much of it! Last year, the city of New York collected about 28,500 tons of polystyrene! (That’s a lot of take-out!)

After the announcement was made official, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City.” Or the ocean, if you ask us!

Each year during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers pick up millions of EPS products and pieces. During the 2013 Cleanup alone, 1.2 million items made of EPS were removed from beaches and waterways!

New York City’s ban on polystyrene foam is a huge step for our ocean. Not only will it eliminate the possibility of harmful waste from entering our environment, it also sets the precedent for other cities to follow suit. Bans and taxes on single-use products, like EPS food and beverage packaging, are key steps in preventing trash from entering our ocean.

Mayor de Blasio stated “…today’s announcement is a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City.” And on an island where all streets lead to the sea, the Big Apple’s decision to say farewell to foam will lead to a healthier and more resilient Hudson River, New York Harbor, and Atlantic Ocean.

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