Unclog the Oceans: Breaking Up with Plastic

Once touted as an indestructible magic material, plastics have proven they are, indeed, long lasting - often ending up in our oceans, polluting reefs and killing wildlife. Here's how to help while you travel.
Breaking Up with Our Plastics Cover
Unclog the Oceans: Breaking Up with Plastic Kristin Hettermann

It finally happened: China is no longer accepting our recycling. I didn't even know that China had been taking our recycling. Makes sense, though, as China has long had a booming economy, and they are keen to continue to feed it by dominating lucrative areas of trade. The $200 billion recycling industry surely offered prime opportunities to pioneering businesses wanting to profit off what others throw away.

For the US, it's cheaper and easier to ship our used plastic, metal, and paper 7,000 miles across the open ocean than to deal with it at home. Make sense? It does to most developed nations. But it's never been a perfect game, with most global plastics ending up in landfills or in our parks and waterways. Stories related to our shocking excess of plastic garbage stop us in our tracks, like the recent report of a Cuvier's beaked whale that washed up on a beach in the Philippines, dead of dehydration and starvation, with 88 pounds of plastic bags in its stomach; or just months before, a sperm whale dead in Sri Lanka with 1000 pieces of plastic material in its stomach.

Out of sight is not out of mind, not in today's world, where the media show us the magnitude of the environmental problem we are facing each and every day because of the plastic-pollution assault on our planet. We find it on our coastlines. We see the grotesque images in the media of animals choked to death from marine debris, or starved from stomachs full of this indestructible material. We swim and surf through it as we hope to enjoy some relaxing time in the sea. We see pictures of children in communities across the world living and playing in trash fields. We know about the five massive whirlpools in the ocean called gyres, where currents meet and plastics form a garbage patch soup; one example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, stretches more than 1.6 million square kilometers. One day soon, we will all acknowledge the effect this trash has on our own immune systems, transferred to us from the toxicity of the food we eat.

As history tells it, the first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt. Mr. Hyatt was inspired by a firm offering a handsome reward of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. Billiards and piano keys were popular, and the demand for ivory, obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants, was surpassing supply. Hyatt's "plastic" could also be used to imitate other animal substances like tortoiseshell and horn. It is ironic that the invention of plastic saved animals' lives, and now its inability to decompose is killing them in mass numbers.

The United Nations Comtrade Database started monitoring global recycling in 1992, and since that time China has accepted 45% of the world's total plastic recycling. That is, until China recently just said "NO" to our trash, including our plastic refuse. In a move that reinforced their increasing attention to protect their own environment, China slammed their gates down hard with dead bolts. In January of 2018, an existing ban to a list of unacceptable hard waste recyclables was extended to include 32 more types of scrap materials, all to take effect by the end of 2019.

Recycling markets in the US are frozen in the headlights in light of this news, leading some domestic recycling plants to shut down, eliminate their curbside recycling programs, and/or just start incinerating what they collect. What happens in a world where we can't just haul our plastics to the street in a bin and hope to be absolved of the guilt of their purchase?

Once touted as an indestructible magic material, plastics have a long and complex history and, in many ways, have had a positive influence in society. But the disposing of this life-changing invention is a global-threatening challenge. A study published in Scientific Advances recently estimates that by 2030 an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced because of China's new law.

We have now managed to explore virtually every part of our planet, so we know how much space we have to work with. And we know the population numbers. The global population has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.61 billion in 2018. Estimates put the total population at 8.6 billion by mid-2030, 9.8 billion by mid-2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100.

Houston, we have a problem.

So what's a concerned and aware member of the human species to do to find solutions to living conscientiously and disposing of their indestructible materials in this plastic-crazy world? Admittedly, I have fears about the danger plastic poses to all living things, and guilt over my own inevitable plastic use as a first-world consumer and global traveler. As an environmentalist and avid ocean conservationist, I've traveled into some of the most remote marine environments in the world and there is not one place—not one—where I have not encountered plastic marine debris. A World Economic Forum report states that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.

I think the Parley AIR strategy outlines it well. "Plastic is a design failure. We can only end the problem with a new material. In the meantime, we save marine wildlife by cleaning up shorelines and oceans and cut into the production of new, virgin plastic. AVOID plastic wherever possible, INTERCEPT Plastic Waste, REDESIGN the Material Itself."

How to avoid PTSD (Plastic Trash Stress Disorder)

  1. Just say no to single-use plastics and any plastic packaging as much as you can. This means coffee cup lids, straws, bags, cutlery, and more. You don't need those things. Find yourself a favorite knapsack that stays by your side, a water bottle that is your best friend, a coffee cup that is refilled daily, a set of bamboo flatware that tucks in your bag. Check out Zoetica for kits for a Waste Free Life.
  2. Be an influence on your favorite local restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. Refuse plastic carry-out and be sure to let the store manager know your eco-friendly preferences and why. Encourage plastic-free solutions for the hospitality industry, referring entities to models that assist like the Oceanic Standard.
  3. Clean up. When you see plastic trash, pick it up and dispose of it. We will find a solution to the trash/recycling problem, but in the meantime, it's better to attempt to get it to the appropriate disposal services than to just leave it in the environment. Share your stories on social media and inspire others. The #5minutebeachcleanup movement is one fine example.
  4. Support companies working with materials made from marine debris. There's a growing number of solutions emerging involving the upcycling of marine plastics into desirable recycled materials. From bracelets to backpacks to bikinis; sportswear to dish soap, companies are working hard to create realistic business models that turn trash into useable treasures. To see just where the upcycling possibilities can go if the market demands it, check out Bionic.
  5. Activate. Supporting the ban of single-use plastics and plastic packaging both locally and nationally, like the model just passed by the European Parliament. Communicate with your elected officials; call, write, email, tweet, Facebook comment. Start petitions. And be sure not to forget to mention the monitoring of the proper disposal of commercial fishing gear and nets; ghost gear is one of the biggest threats in the marine environment.

Consumers need to ask for and be given more choices. Governments must outlaw single-use plastic waste. Demand for unsustainable plastic as a material will go down, the market will change, and disruptive novel material options will rise up. Most important, we all must come together. It's time for the great ocean cleanup.

Kristin Hettermann is an ocean conservationist and underwater photographer who uses the camera and storytelling as tools to tap into emotions and elicit deeper feelings about her favorite part of planet earth, the ocean. Her artivism platform, OCEANSCAPES, is modeled to combine science and activism with art and design, and her favorite moments are in the field with scientists and naturalists exploring natural environments and capturing images that accompany their stories.

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Kristin Hettermann