Meet the Ambassadors : Genevieve Abedon

Name: Genevieve Abedon
Job: Waste Prevention Campaign Coordinator at Californians Against Waste
School: University of Vermont
Age: 34
Hometown: Newton, Massachusetts
Favorite Reusable Item: Chicobag and water bottle
5 Gyres Involvement: Viking Expedition Crew, 5 Gyres Ambassador + Partner on Microbead Campaign



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When did you first learn about the global plastic pollution issue?
A little over two years ago, I spent over six months on a solo backpacking trip in South America. While traveling, I became hyper aware of how much trash was everywhere. In Costa Rica, I went surfing at a beach that was completely trashed. I couldn’t understand where it was coming from. This beach is where I had my “plastic awakening.”

I started researching the issue and learning as much as possible. This is where I came across 5 Gyres on the Internet.

After I returned, I continued my research and heard 5 Gyres was having an event at the Patagonia Store in San Francisco. I was one of the first people there, and so excited to hear about the Expeditions! Next thing I knew, there was an announcement for the Viking Gyre Expedition (Bermuda to Iceland). I applied to come along on the Viking Expedition and got a spot.

What did you get out of the Expedition?
I really wanted to be part of the solution and research. It took a lot of pre-planning and fundraising to make the Expedition happen, but it was the experience of a lifetime. I learned the methods for sampling plastic with a trawl and at a beach, along with learning to sail. I made lasting connections - lifetime connections. Ultimately, I attribute my involvement with 5 Gyres to where I am now, working in the field of plastic pollution.

Favorite memory from Expedition?
I have three! One, jumping in the ocean at 15,000 feet and exploring a netball of fishing gear and ocean trash. It was exhilarating and scary and exciting, all at the same time. Two, after 10 days of fog, which was a little difficult for boat moral, the sun and whales came out. It was a pretty amazing moment. Three, when we saw Iceland. It was such a calm morning, and just seeing land was very exciting.

 

 

What inspires you most about this issue?
I think it is an issue that affects the land and water and humans and animals – It’s an issue that affects everything and everyone, on so many levels. It is an issue with obvious solutions, even though they may not be easy to make happen. I think solutions are multi-pronged and have to do with both, the consumers and producers of plastic materials. While the higher up policy and infrastructures are difficult to change quickly, there are simple things that we can do as individuals to reduce our own plastic footprints. I think it’s important to walk the walk if I’m going to talk the talk. I worked over the last few years, since my “plastic awakening,” to make my life as plastic free as possible. It is not as difficult as people think. I refuse a lot of things! I also make my own toothpaste powder, cleaning supplies, face scrub, most of my food, and deodorant.

Tooth Powder

1/2 c baking soda

3 tsp coconut oil (liquified) - add more for more "pastiness"

1/2 tsp sea salt

40 drops food grade peppermint oil

Mix well and let dry. Place on toothbrush with small amount of water and brush away. 


Why are you excited to be a 5 Gyres Ambassador?
I really believe in what 5 Gyres is doing to mitigate plastic pollution and think the 5 Gyres team has so much to teach others. The Ambassador Program is full of like-minded people, who are passionate about the cause, and they are my new allies!


5 Gyres has ambassadors across the globe. The Ambassador Program aims to build and train a network of inspiring leaders around the globe to take community action that results in less plastic pollution in our oceans. Stay tuned to learn how these fearless leaders are making change happen.

 

 

Meet the Ambassadors : Lauren Silvera

5 Gyres has ambassadors across the globe. The Ambassador Program aims to build and train a network of inspiring leaders around the globe to take community action that results in less plastic pollution in our oceans. Stay tuned to learn how these fearless leaders are making change happen.

 

“Be apart of the solution and not the cause”

I never understood the whole plastic pollution issue until I attended the 2015 5 Gyres Youth Action Summit in the Bahamas where in-depth discussions furthered my knowledge on that issue. I was able to attend this event due to my passion for art. Earlier in 2015 I decided to have my own Art exhibition, ArtEXHI, where over 100 paintings were on display and sold. I was able to donate approximately $4000 USD to the Welfare Programme at my school- helping students in need of financial aid. Due to the success of my initiative, I was chosen as the candidate to represent Marley Coffee, who sponsored my trip, at the summit. After attending the summit my whole entire mindset changed for the better.

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After the summit, the quote, “Be a part of the solution and not the cause”, fossilized itself in my memory, and because it was my last year in high school I felt compelled to promote change and awareness starting with Jamaica. Jamaica is a country that has a major plastic pollution problem. The plastic pollution problem also stems from poverty. During my time at the summit, I attended a beach clean up with the 5 Gyres team, Jack Johnson and many other activists. During this activity, I was alarmed to see large volumes of plastics washed up on the Bahamian shores. What struck me even more was seeing something familiar in Jamaica - plastic juice bags called “Bag Juice” in my country. These bags contain juices and sometimes water at an affordable cost. Each ‘Bag Juice’ costs about $0.20. At my school we sell thousands on a monthly basis and one can find them on every street corner and at every school. It was embarrassing to see these bags polluting the shores of Bahamas and I felt that for me to start promoting change I want to start by using these bags in an effective way.

 

"The Solution"

Art is my passion and based on my last exhibition, I was able to use my passion for art as the driving force to help others. I want to do something similar but for change - eco change. From this, I decided to name my next exhibition ‘ArtEXHI: Eco Change’. Being President of the Art Society at my school has made this initiative a lot easier as it is a group effort. In September 2015, I made the commitment to myself that I want to use the plastic juice bags as the main material for the art pieces for the 2016 plastic art exhibition, and so far we have collected hundreds of these bags with the use of wooden recycling bins placed around my school compound. Prior to the exhibition, I will be selling 100 RecoverBrand drawstring bags to raise additional funds for the cause while raising awareness at the same time. All funds collected will fund scholarships grants for high achieving students in school. ArtEXHI: Eco Change will be on April 15th, in my school’s auditorium.

The solution starts with a goal driven mentality and this has kept me and my art society on a steady momentum to raise awareness on plastic pollution while supporting the education for students in Jamaica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seabin Project

The Seabin is a post consumer clean up technology that works in the last place viable to clean up our waterways before they reach the ocean. It's basically a floating garbage can with a pump on the bottom that sucks surface water in from the top. It is beautiful and efficient in it's simplicity.


It is not the first one like it, with earlier versions already in place in marinas around the world. The Seabin is great because of its small size and scalability to Be implemented in lakes, estuaries, and marinas everywhere. It likely would not work well in Rivers where plenty of natural debris is making its way down stream and would fill the bin quickly.  

It's not an ocean fix either. It requires a calm water surface in order to be efficient. It would not work in choppy seas. It would also wreak havoc on passively floating marine life. 

These are the same challenges that every proposed idea to capture ocean trash has had to face and failed. It proves the point that the last place to capture ocean trash is at the point of entry along coastlines. In the ocean, the economics and design challenges tell us that once plastic goes out to see we must wait for it to sink or wash ashore.


The Seabin is also a great tool to use in a waste characterization analysis. With this device you can identify the most polluting items, types of plastic and brands. Is fast food packaging clogging the net? Which company? Is it film, foam, pellets, or is it straws, cups, chip bags? This information is great data to drive campaigns to find upstream solutions.


These upstream campaigns are the solutions with a lasting affect that make downstream technologies like the Seabin unnecessary, but for now we need them.

Policy is Essential to A Circular Economy

While we’re still celebrating the Federal Microbead Free Waters Act, signed by the president in the last days of 2015, this report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Plastic Economy, barely mentions the role of policy in solving the problem.  Good legislative policy levels the playing field and opens the door for innovation to replace poorly designed harmful plastics from society.  If you remember, plastic microbeads are those pesky little microplastics added to facial scrubs and toothpaste and were found in the Great Lakes by the millions. Efforts to inform the consumer and negotiate with producers had not worked. The plastics industries demonstrated they are unwilling to do it on their own. It took a legislative act to protect the environment from the polluting products. 

 

CIRCULAR ECONOMY VS LINEAR ECONOMY

In a circular economy there are biological materials, like paper bags and popsicle sticks, that can be reabsorbed by nature, and technical materials, like circuit boards and plastic bottles, which must be recovered, dismantled and remanufactured into new products.  The problem with plastic is that  it’s a technical material stuck in the linear economy, in what we call the “Burn & Bury” model, with recovered plastic being largely landfilled or incinerated, and unrecovered plastic leaking into the environment.  Plastic is designed to resist all of nature’s mechanisms to degrade it, yet is being used for products and packaging designed to be thrown away.  In the linear economy there is loss and persistence in the environment at every step along the way, from poor product design to mismanaged waste, resulting in a ecological catastrophe of microplastic toxification, global dispersal and severe ecological impacts.

 

WHY LEGISLATIVE POLICY IS ESSENTIAL

This is where policy must intervene.  When plastic microbeads were discovered in the Great Lakes in 2012, we went to Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson soon after a public facing campaign brought attention to the discovery.  With clear evidence pointing to their products, the reaction was the hiring of the Personal Care Product Lobby to defend a poorly designed plastic product, rather than innovate a solution to an obvious problem.  A policy campaign was the essential driver of design change.  It wasn’t a consumer awareness program or industry innovation, although examples of both played key roles.  It took the hard work of policymakers and campaigners to make the legislation happen.  With policy restricting the use of microbeads in consumer products, companies can operate on a level playing field, where innovation can thrive in a space where no one has a competitive advantage of relying on the status quo.

In this figure you see the circular economy feedback loop, where technical materials are recovered through recycling, reuse, and recovery through waste diversion.  Single-use throwaway plastics cannot exist in a circular economy because there is ease of loss to the environment and no incentive for recovery.  The loss of biological materials, like toothpicks, is inconsequential because they are benign, whereas the loss of technical materials, like plastic straws, are valueless as waste and become toxic to the environment over time. 

Look at all of the red boxes in the figure.  They represent the one-way linear economy, where plastic is made, consumed and eliminated through incineration or landfill, making room for more production from virgin materials.  In the Linear Economy, the “Burn & Bury” model, poorly designed single-use, throw away plastics are lost as litter, combined sewage overflow, escape waste collection systems, fly and float away from trash cans and landfills, and absorb and release toxicants along the way.  And when captured in the waste management system, the small volumes of plastic in products and packaging, laminates of mixed materials, or fouling by food and filth, make them worthless to recover.

 

OUR SOLUTION

Legislative policy is necessary to do what plastics industries are unwilling or unable to do on their own.  Innovative plastic alternatives are often too risky to introduce to the market when competitors still reap the benefit of consumer habit..   Consumer behavior is not a efficient driver to disincentivize consumption in the case of convenient, single-use, throw away plastics. Leadership must come from the collective will of industry to eliminate poor design.

We strongly disagree that increasing waste management infrastructure and incinerators, as suggested by the Ocean Conservancy report “Stemming the Tide”, will curb the loss of single-use, throw away plastic products and packaging. In a recent expedition to survey plastic marine pollution in the North Atlantic, ending in New York City, the last sample collected in the Hudson River showed the inefficiencies associated with the most efficient waste management infrastructure on the planet.  Small plastics, including gum wrappers, ear buds, tampon applicators, industrial pellets, and plastic toothpicks were more abundant in this sample than any other sample from the middle of the North Atlantic. 

What we have found is that by eliminating the single-use throw away product and packaging design, then re-design with efficient recovery in mind or use environmentally benign materials, nearly all of the leakage points, those red boxes in the figure, go away.  Policy intervention at the point of product and packaging design has the greatest benefit down the road. 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Advice to The Ocean Clean Up Project

New research this week from Erik van Sebille and Peter Sherman shows that trying to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is far less efficient than focusing on coastlines and river mouths.  Having surveyed each of the 5 subtropical gyres, we strongly agree.

“It makes sense to remove plastics where they first enter the ocean around dense coastal economic and population centers where there is a lot of marine life,” says Dr. van Sebille. “It also means you can remove the plastics before they have had a chance to do any harm. Plastics in the patch have travelled a long way and potentially already done a lot of harm.”

The Ocean Cleanup Project, one of the few remaining organizations focused on mid-ocean recovery, aims to collect plastic in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre with a giant net array.  This idea, while novel and solutions-focused, is not widely accepted by the research community as a viable strategy.  


Deploying nets to the middle of the ocean misses the majority of the trash leaving land, which shreds rapidly creating a smog of microplastics, which negatively interacts with wildlife before reaching the accumulation zones in the gyres.  What mid-ocean cleanup will recover is mostly derelict fishing gear, as the Ocean Cleanup Project experienced in 2015 in the North Pacific.  

What we and most scientists advise to groups, like Ocean Cleanup Project, is to move upstream.  This might not be as "media sexy" as conquering the open ocean, but using a pragmatic approach to recovering plastic where research says you should go, is the smartest move.  


5 Countries Pollute the World? Why We Disagree

 

Jenna Jambeck's paper suggesting that five countries pollute the most is misleading.  This also comes from the Ocean Conservancy report 'Stemming the Tide', published with support from Coke, Dow and the American Chemistry Council.

The gist of it is that Jenna Jambeck's paper looks at 192 countries close to the coast, and their per capita plastic use and national waste management strategy.  In her top 20 list, China is the biggest waste producer and the US is 20th.  The paper leaves out the fact that wastepickers in China are a huge population that keeps a lot of plastic off the street/beach. She also doesn't take US exports of trash to China into account. This is a huge bias that favors the industry position that Asian countries need to burn and bury their waste, rather than eliminate some products in favor of Extended Producer Responsibility.

Dr. Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres' Research Director recently wrote this blurb for a book :

A study calculating the amount of mismanaged plastic waste generated by coastal populations worldwide estimated that 4.8 to 12.7 million tons (metric tons) can potentially enter the ocean as marine debris (Jambeck et al., 2015). The framework integrates data on solid waste, population density and economic status for 192 coastal countries. The annual amount of mismanaged plastic waste generated by population living within 50 km of the coast was estimated at 31.9 million metric tons ranging between 1.1 to 8.8 million metric tons per year for individual countries with a conversion rate from mismanaged plastic waste to potential plastic marine pollution ranging from 15 to 40 percent. This conversion rate range was assumed conservative and based on municipal water quality data from the San Francisco Bay watershed in California, estimating 61 percent of all materials littered in the watershed was not captured by street sweeping or catchments and thus available to enter the waterways.


The study on global plastic waste inputs also predicts an order of magnitude increase in marine littering from coastal population pressure by 2025 if no improvements are made on waste management infrastructure. The work also suggests that 83 percent of the global mismanaged plastic waste in coastal regions for 2010 was generated by the top 20 countries largely dominated by Asian countries (11 countries in the top 20) with China ranking first (1.32 to 3.53 million metric tons of annual plastic marine pollution input) and Indonesia second (0.48 to 1.29 million metric tons).

Overall, this study represents the most recent estimate of potential global plastic input, with an average of 8.0 million metric tons, but grossly underestimates other post-consumer recovery activities that burn, bury and collect plastics, labeling them collectively as ‘mismanagement’. Informal waste collection, commonly called ‘waste picking’, in China may account for 17-38%wt. of municipal solid waste diversion (Linzner and Salhofer, 2014) and may represent 3.3-5.6 million people. Across Latin America and Asia waste picking is the livelihood of an estimated 2% of the population (Medina, 2000), representing a significant contribution to keeping plastic out of the ocean. Future estimates of waste inputs must include these significant factors.

Why We Like the National Microbead-Free Waters Act

December 7, 2015, The House of Representatives unanimously passed the Microbeads-Free Waters Act.  After we worked to get microbeads successfully banned in California, we began to tackle the issue on a national level. We couldn't be more excited about this decision.  Here's why: 

  1. It has an even more aggressive timeline than the CA bill and -- requiring that microbeads are phased out by 2017 vs. 2020. That means 3 years worth of microbead containing products - millions of beads – are kept out of our shared waters. 
     
  2. It doesn’t contain a "biodegradable" loophole – several state bills (IL, ME, NJ, CO, IN) include language written by the plastics industry that allow manufacturers to replace petroleum-based plastic microbeads with “bioplastic” beads, which don’t biodegrade in the ocean. 
     
  3. Getting National legislation introduced, and ideally passed, will educate MANY more people across the country about the issues relating to microbeads. National bills result in media, articles, press releases, and more people engaged to take steps in the meantime: i.e. DON’T BUY PRODUCTS WITH MICROBEADS.
     
  4. The bill bans all rinse-off cosmetics, which INCLUDES toothpaste. It doesn’t however include cosmetics such as fillers, creams or cleaning products in general – that is the next phase of the campaign….
     
  5. It preempts statewide legislation. The GOOD: this means it will trump “bad” state bills - the ones that include the “biodegradable loophole.” The BAD: There's still time for the bill to change before it's passed, which leaves it open to industry pressure to include biodegradable options.

WHAT'S NEXT
Next, the Act gets passed on to a Senate vote.  We've been working with legislators to ensure the voice of the environmental community is being heard.

 

Talking Turds with Surfers - A recap of the Global Wave Conference

Take all of the surf conservation organizations (Surfrider, Surfers Against Sewage, Save Our Surf, etc...), throw in a handful of scientists, artists, filmmakers, and some of the top surfers and big wave riders on the planet, and put them all in the water at one of the best surf spots in England, - you get total stoke mayhem.  The conversations were as much informative as they were direct calls to action—from buying coastal land to spearheading legislation. What was clear from this conference is that surfers are united and their collective power is growing.

The image of the stoned bohemian in a VW van is replaced today by lawyers, teachers, engineers, CEOs, politicians with sandy wetsuits drying in the trunk of their cars. Surfers are a collective force, with saving our seas in their hearts and minds.

On the last day on the conference I had the opportunity to interview Ramon Navarro.  Ramon is one of the world's most talented big wave surfers with a mission. He is working with Save the Waves to conserve as much of the Chilean coastline as possible within his lifetime, starting with "Punta Lobos".  Their goal is to acquire and protect 23 coastal acres, and it’s working. Learn more about supporting them here.

As Ramon and I stood on the beach, the tide flowed in at the pace of a slow walk, and a woman in her 70’s climbed out of the water holding a wooden board.  "This was my mothers surfboard," she explained, " it’s around 80 years old and doing just fine.”  We marveled at the simplicity and efficiency of this pre-plastic invention. 

RAMON NAVARRO AND I MARVEL AT THIS PRE-PLASTIC SURFBOARD.

RAMON NAVARRO AND I MARVEL AT THIS PRE-PLASTIC SURFBOARD.

Now the conference was over and like clockwork, at 5 pm EVERYONE from the conference got in the water; sometimes 20 people on the same wave surfing and laughing.  The sunset followed by pizza, beer and a few guitars in the hotel bar.

At 8:00 am 30 of us were on the bus for London, dressed in suit and tie for the House of Parliament, where two MPs are supporting legislation to protect more British coastline, but also to stop the horrible discharge of raw sewage into the ocean called "Combined Sewage Overflow" or CSO.  In the UK it's the folks from Surfers Against Sewage, known for their inflatable turd, that are fed up with getting sick from being in the water and are working to flush this problem away.

SURFERS AGAINST SEWAGE AND THEIR FAMOUS INFLATABLE TURD.

SURFERS AGAINST SEWAGE AND THEIR FAMOUS INFLATABLE TURD.


5 Gyres is well aware of sewage overflow. Our 2015 Sea Change expedition, we sailed 3,000 miles in the N. Atlantic and collected our biggest and ugliest sample in the Hudson River.  It was full of condoms, tampon applicators, cigar tips, plastic toothpicks, a few straws and little drug baggies – really nasty stuff.

A SAMPLE FROM THE HUDSON RIVER COLLECTED ON OUR 2015 SEA CHANGE EXPEDITION

A SAMPLE FROM THE HUDSON RIVER COLLECTED ON OUR 2015 SEA CHANGE EXPEDITION

Sick of this $H!T? Are you finding these objects washing ashore on your local beach?  Then is possible that your city has a century-old sewage treatment system and is dumping raw sewage into your local waterway.  Here’s what you can do:

1.    Contact your local sewage treatment facility and ask them if they discharge combined sewage overflow, when do they do it, under what conditions, and if they have a system to warn the public.  Also, ask if there are future plans to update city plumbing to treat all waste.

2.    What’s the common plastic item you see?  Why is a tampon applicator with a high likelihood to be flushed down the toilet, made from plastic?  Why a plastic toothpick, or Q-tip?  These are design flaws and are objects to target because of the design flaw.  These products are where campaigns can start.

 


 

 

Plastic research in the Artic

As the co-founder of 5 Gyres Institute, I’ve seen trash in the world’s oceans, but there are huge data gaps, like the Arctic.  Our team decided to make a dozen copies of our research equipment and now loan this equipment to other scientists and sailors. One couple, Matt Rutherford and Nicole Trenholm, founders of the Ocean Research Project, have a trawl. They report here from the Arctic, with photos of trawling around Icebergs and the realities of waste management in the most remote human settlements on the planet.  Read more below.

By Matt Rutherford

I hear the leaves are starting to change color back in Annapolis.  There are no trees in Greenland (except the far south) but it is starting to get dark at night.  The darkness brings the cold and it’s not uncommon to wake up in the morning and have ice on the boat.  Our heaters are all in a state of rebellion so we live with the cold, unless the engines on.  My friend Micha told me to buy and install a car heater from Summit racing, which I did before we left. Just like your car, when our engine heats up we can heat our boat, but when the engine is off it gets cold again.  Nikki told me “I’ve been colder spending the winter on a boat in Annapolis” so she’s fine with the situation. Next year we will have different heaters.  

The darkness completely changes how we can operate in the Arctic.  Normally sailing at night is nearly the same as sailing in the day, I’ve spent more nights at sea than I can remember.   Mix the darkness with ice and now you have a very dangerous situation.  So we get up before the sun and get underway as it rises, then we drop anchor before it sets.  We have been reduced to doing day hops from one anchorage to another (I just make up the anchorages day to day depending on wind direction).  At best we can only make 50-60 miles a day so it’s been slow.
We have also been getting stronger winds which makes it difficult to trawl for micro plastics.

Like most research when trawling for micro plastics you really want calm conditions.  If there is a strong sea state the waves hit the trawl and splash water in front of its mouth pushing away the micro plastics which float on the surface. This will completely screw up your “how much micro plastics per square kilometer” average.  We have had a little success.  It’s impossible to say exactly what we have found at this point as the samples will need to be processed by Nicole in a lab back in the states, but we have found lots of bits of Styrofoam in the water. 

A research trawl gathering microplastics

A research trawl gathering microplastics

Styrofoam is horrible stuff but it’s cheap to make and therefor cheap to buy.  We love when things are cheap and convenient, hell we’re obsessed with it. I think we should ban Styrofoam, is it really that bad to spend a slightly larger amount of money on a less destructive material?  
The bits of Styrofoam are not coming from Greenland but some of the floating trash is.  They really struggle with waste in Greenland.  Most of the trash gets burned locally and most of the trash dumps are right on the water.  A strong gust of wind comes and there goes some trash in the water.  They really are trying to deal with it but it’s such a difficult landscape and for thousands of years they didn’t produce any waste. In Greenland we only throw away our trash in the larger towns that have better trash burning facilities.  To throw your trash away in a small town would be disrespectful. 

The issue of waste is tied directly to one of the most difficult issues we have, over population.  Over population is so difficult because there is no good strategy to deal with it.  You can’t say “you can only have one child” to the entire world.  There are twice as many people on earth as there was in 1960 when JFK was president.  Every single person uses resources and produces waste.  Some people are worse than others, but every person has some impact on this planet.  In the end we might use so many resources and produce so much waste that billions of people die because of it, but that’s a terrible way of dealing with over population. 

Over consumption is also a big problem.  In the United States we consume so many resources and produce so much waste that if the entire world lived like we do it would take three planet earths to sustain the current population.  We are the most influential country on earth, we could use that influence to teach the world to live in a state of equilibrium with our environment, but we don’t. 

All of this has very little to do with us.  It has to do with our children and grandchildren.  What kind of world do you want to leave the future generations of your family?  We have been lucky to live in a time when the earth is still relatively pristine but things are changing for the worst very quickly.  I don’t have a bleeding heart and I don’t hug trees but I can understand the damage we are doing to our planet. 

It wasn’t that long ago that I read in the news that there are 50% less mammals, birds, and fish on earth than there were in 1970.  Things are already changing but it’s not about saving the planet. The planets not going anywhere, it will continue to turn. We need to save ourselves from ourselves. 99.9% of all life that has existed throughout the history of our planet is now extinct. If we don’t want to become a statistic we need to use that big brain of ours and figure out a way convince people to live more responsibly.  If we don’t start making changes things are going to get very bad for our future generations.
Fortitudine Vincinimus

4 controversies in fixing the plastic pollution problem

 

Everyone agrees that plastic doesn’t belong in the oceans, but once it comes to solutions there is a Great Divide, like a rising rift between to tectonic plates. The producers and manufactures are on one side and environmental NGO’s, policymakers and scientists on the other, with a few exceptions on both sides.  It doesn’t have to be this way, but until a great shift occurs in the core values of the biggest petrochemical companies in the world, these two camps will persist.

One month ago, following our published estimate, the 5 Gyres Institute was invited by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to meet in their Washington DC headquarters to discuss where we stood on future research and solutions. Anna and I are the co-founders of the 5 Gyres Institute, and sat with 4 wonderful people, but quickly we had each other pegged.  The ACC is the largest lobby group representing the interests of over 200 plastic producers and manufacturers.  Akin to an awkward blind date, we let the conversation wander from one subject to another, identifying what we didn’t have in common, though there was some agreement over river systems that capture plastic before it reaches the sea.  Lines in the sand were drawn on recycling, product phase-outs and extended producer responsibility (EPR).

SMARTER DESIGN vs. MORE RECYCLING

While the ACC says, “We represent plastic producers, not the product,” they actively spend millions of dollars to defend products, like plastic bags. They also repeatedly said, “We strongly favor increased recycling opportunities,” yet they do not demand their member companies design recyclable products.

Recycling is undeniably part of the solution, yet there are thousands of products that by design are either not recyclable or escape recovery. Though we agree we should increase recycling efforts, there must also be a design overhaul for hundreds of products and their packaging. Foamed polystyrene in food packaging is both a health concern and an unrecyclable material on all practical measures. Laminates of paper, plastic and metal are worthless to recyclers. Plastic bags, straws, plastic coffee stirsticks, cup lids, and a long list of single-use throw away products, are both costly to taxpayers to cleanup, and are poorly represented or non-existent in the recycled waste stream. They don’t get captured. These bad designs slip through the cracks of the most efficient waste management systems on the planet and become environmental pollutants.  If the ACC could commit to requiring their member companies “Design for recovery”, or choose environmentally harmless materials, which we call “Benign by Design”, then we would have plastic waste back in the loop and not in the sea.

Recycling only works when you build systems that incentivize recovery.

WASTE DIVERSION vs. WASTE TO ENERGY

When I’m asked, “What can one person do to make a difference on this issue?” I always say, “Look at your grocery list and only buy what you can sort into compost and recyclables.” Waste diversion begins with commitments from municipalities and citizens to support the infrastructure to sort waste. Cities like San Francisco and Portland are witnessing lower costs to taxpayers and less hazardous waste to deal with, as their waste diversion rates increase.

On the other hand, some cities are choosing to co-mingle and incinerate waste as a short-term solution with big-picture and long-term higher costs. Waste to Energy typically begins with high-heat combustion of trash, resulting in the formation of hazardous compounds, like dioxins and furans, which are either captured by scrubbers or not. 5 years ago we sailed to Bermuda and asked the incinerator manager, “Why don’t you have scrubbers on your smokestacks?”  He explained that if he filled 55-gallon drums with the hazardous by-products captured from burning waste, what would we do with it?  Where would we put it?”  It’ the pollution solution by dilution, which doesn’t work with 7 billion people on a small planet. The long-term cost of Waste to Energy is the undesirable choice of either “release and pollute”, or “capture and store” those compounds.

The Big Picture cost is the loss of material from a circular system. Paper, plastic, other organics become atmospheric CO2 instead of recaptured materials, and metals are either lost as useless slag or a mixed metal alloy that’s more costly to separate than sorted cans. In the long run, building infrastructure for sorting pays off in cheaper waste management and cleaner, healthier communities.

PHASE-OUT PROBLEMATIC PLASTICS vs. MORE WASTE MANAGEMENT

In Oct. 2014 I joined Expedition Plastik departing from Bali, Indonesia, and witnessed a steady stream of large plastic objects, including bags, bottles, caps, utensils, straws and flip-flops drifting into the Indian Ocean.  Undeniably, there is a need for waste management here, including waste & recycling bins, modern MRF’s and landfills, and citizen education.  As one billion people living in China and India will join the middle class by the first quarter of this century, they want the same opportunity, comfort and convenience Western societies have enjoyed for the last half-century.  Improved waste management is essential, but the best waste management systems in the world today will not capture the worst designed products.

The company Unilever celebrated the ‘sachet pack’, which looks like two business card-size sheets of plastic with a small portion of product sandwiched in the middle, ranging from a pinch of coffee to a few drops of shampoo. The benefit of delivering product to a below-poverty market that cannot afford large quantities of anything, is overshadowed by the mountains of trash from billions of sachet packs in the rivers, gutters and empty lots in communities across Asia, India, Africa and S. America.  A great idea in delivering a product failed to deliver it in the right package, when considering its full lifecycle. This is a perfect opportunity for change, where a phase-out coupled with an X-prize for an innovative replacement would have a huge impact.

The ACC has a motto, “Plastic: Too Valuable to Waste.” To be true to this motto, they must phase-out product and packaging designs that evade capture in waste management and recycling infrastructure.  Last year in Delhi, India I shadowed a wastepicker on a bicycle all day to learn what he does and does not pick up.  We stopped when he saw a bottle under a bush, but rode past straws, chai cups, sauce packs, and sachet packs. The list of products that need to be phased-out is easy to assemble. He’s the sanitation engineer that can tell you what plastics are worth picking up, and which ones are “Too Wasteful to Value.”

EXTENDED PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY vs. TAXPAYER BEARS ALL COSTS

You could say it began with a crying Native American, Iron Eyes Cody, the one in the Keep America Beautiful adds in the 1970’s, a program funded by the same companies who made the plastic stuff along roadsides he was crying about. The tagline in the print add reads, “People start pollution. People can stop it,” with the blame effectively placed on the citizen. The term, “litter bug” evolved here.  At the same time, soda companies began to centralize their bottling operations and switch to plastic. They began shutting down glass bottle redemption programs, while also shifting recycling efforts to municipal solid waste management. Instead of getting a nickel per bottle, the consumer/tax-payer now gets taxed that nickel back and more to manage city-run recycling and waste management programs.

Today, despite the tremendous success of bottle redemption programs, CocaCola aggressively rises against bottle bills worldwide. Simultaneously, the American Chemistry Council fights EPR legislation, with their messaging focused on consumer behavior being the problem. Their descriptor of plastic in the ocean as “marine litter” and not pollution, is indicative of a perspective skewed toward diverting responsibility to the ‘behavior’ of the consumer rather than the ‘design’ of the product itself.

What ideal producer responsibility looks like is incentivized recovery. If you ‘Make It’ then you’ve got to ‘Take It’ back from your customer. This could be a subsidized refund, for example: 5 cents per kilo for mixed, dry and clean plastic of any kind. Or the product becomes the currency for the next same purchase, like an old shoe becomes a % discount for the next one.  Whatever the scheme, if it doesn’t work, then a commitment to environmentally harmless materials must prevail. That means no plastic in some design applications.

WE NEED A SHIFT IN VALUES

As companies begin to feel the squeeze, that’s the pressure from resource scarcity and public scrutiny of social and environmental abuse within their supply chain, they determine their fate by their reaction.  Andrew Winston says in clearly in The Big Pivot (2014).

“I’m not against markets, making money, or even making a lot of money.  But we can’t prioritize short-term profit maximization and an idealized version of markets over ensuring our prosperity and survival.  If we don’t make solving the problems of climate change and resource scarcity the core pursuit of business and society, we won’t be maximizing value, or even profits, at all – we’ll be ensuring a great deal of pain, scarcity, and human and financial loss.”

There is tremendous leadership out there.  Products like ChicoBag and Klean Kanteen show that heirloom products that replace the Throw Away culture can be thriving companies. Packaging 2.0, a producer of PET plastic products has put the health of the ocean at equal concern to the profit motive, and can also claim to be the first B Corporation (Benefit) in Rhode Island, with a mission to support innovation, education and prevention efforts that keep plastic out of the sea.  In 2010 Anna and I had the opportunity to meet with Robert McDonald, former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, where we learned that they were working with Brazilian companies turning sugar cane fiber into bioplastics in order to decrease their dependence of fossil fuels to make their plastic bottles for hundreds of products.  These are steps in the right direction.

What we ask of the ACC is to consider the changing values their member companies are aspiring to live up to and adopt them as the requirement for membership.  The ACC’s stated mission is “to deliver business value through exceptional advocacy using best-in-class member performance, political engagement, communications and scientific research,” but the definition of ‘business value’ is changing fast.  Nations and corporations are moving toward Zero Waste economies, carbon neutral, and even environmentally and socially restorative. Specifically, we ask the ACC to:

Will 5 Gyres meet with the ACC again? Why wouldn’t we? But let's begin the conversation with core values.  It all starts there.