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A Nation of Trash


Scientists have recently discovered what they call a "plastic soup" of floating waste in the Pacific Ocean that is growing at an alarming rate, and currently covers an area twice the size of the continental United States.

This massive, floating plastic garbage dump stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the California coast, across the northern Pacific, past the Hawaiin Islands and nearly as far as Japan.


American oceanographer Charles Moore was the first scientist to discover what he has named the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch." Moore estimates what he terms as this drifting "trash vortex" contains about 100 million tons of flotsam. Dr. Marcus Eriksen, a collegue of Moore's and director of the US-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which was founded by Dr. Moore, says the floating garbage dump is almost like a plastic soup. "It is vast and endless for an area that's about double the size of the continental United States, and is growing rapidly," Dr. Eriksen says.

According to Moore, Eriksen and other researchers, the drifting plastic garbage patch is composed of everything plastic, from shopping bags and plastic packaging, to things like Lego toys, laundry detergent bottles, footballs, empty water bottles, and most everything plastic that is disposed of outside of a landfill or not recycled. The scientists estimate about one-fifth of the plastic waste is thrown off ships or oil platforms, and that the rest--the vast majority--comes from the land and is washed out to sea.

Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer is another researcher who's been working on the buildup of plastics in the ocean issue for over a decade. He makes an analogy of the floating plastic "trash vortex" to a living organism. 'It moves around like a huge animal without a leash," he said at a recent conference on the issue. When the floating garbage patch comes close to land, "the garbage patch 'barfs,' and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic," he says. Dr. Ebbesmeyer and others have observed this "barfing" and the resulting beach being covered with shredded plastic waste on beaches in the Hawaiin archipalago.

Dr. David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, says he is launching a major expedition later this year to further investigate and better document the origins of the floating plastic garbage patch. He says he thinks the garbage patch represents a new habitat and recently explained why.

According to Karl, historically, garbage that ends up in the ocean has already biodegraded. However, this is clearly not the case with the giant plastic flotsam. Rather, he suggests modern plastics are so durable that plastic items a half-century old have been found in the Pacific Ocean grabage patch. "Every piece of plastic manufactured in the last fifty years that has made its way into the ocean is still out there," Karl says.

Because the floating patch of plastic trash lies just under the surface of the ocean and is translucent, it can't be detected and viewed in satellite photographs, the researchers said. Rather, it can only be seen from the bows of ships, which is why the scientists have to go out to sea to study the flotsam.


The Pacific Ocean garbage patch has created a cottage industry of sorts. Aquatic garbage scavengers. Above, a scavenger paddles a canoe through the garbage vortex near a Manila waterway in the Philipines.

This massive and fast-growing floating plastic garbage dump at sea is posing many problems. For example, according to numerous independent researchers and the United Nations' Environmental Program, plastic debris in the ocean causes the death of at least a million seabirds each year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Researchers have found plastic grocery bags, plastic toothbrushes, disposable cigarette lighters and numerous other plastic items inside the stomachs of dead seabirds and marine mammals, who mistake the items for food and ingest them, causing their deaths.

There's agreement among scientists and oceanographic organizations who study the issue, that plastics make up about 90% of all trash floating in the world's oceans. In 2006, a study sponsored by the UN Environmental Program determined that every square mile of ocean contains about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic refuse.

This seaborn plastic garbage doesn't just cause death and health risks to seabirds and mammals, but to humans as well, according to the scientists. Dr. Erikson says it is well excepted that the fast-growing, floating vortex of plastic rubbish poses a risk to human health.

He explains that hundreds of tiny plastic pellets, called nurdles--which are the raw materials the plastic industry uses to make plastic items--are spilled or disposed of every year and work their way into the oceans. These pellets act as chemical sponges of sorts, attracting man-made chemicals such as hydrocarbons and the pesticide DDT to them. They then enter the food chain, he says. "What goes into the ocean goes into these animals (fish, seafood) and onto your dinner plate. It's just that simple," he says.

Our Analysis and Viewpoint: The Ecological Crisis, Plastics Legislation, Taxes and Outright Bans: What to Do?
The scientific evidence on how plastic refuse is affecting the oceans and killing marine birds and mammals, as well as posing human health risks is clear, based on the research of those scientists sited in this piece and many others. What else the waste might be doing in unknown at present, but being researched by ecologists, oceanographers and others.

This oceanic evidence adds to what we already know about the harmful environmental, potential health and economic effects that plastics not recycled or disposed of properly causes on land as well: litter, landfill issues, and the like.


Above is a photograph of 2 million plastic beverage bottles, which happens to be the amount Americans throw away every five minutes. (The photo is by Chris Jordan.)

Taken together--by land and by sea--it's obvious a solution has to be found to this growing crisis. This fact is being recognized in increasing frequency by countries, states, provinces and cities throughout the world. China, for example, has banned thin plastic shopping bags. Beginning in June retail stores in the wrld's most-populous country will no longer be able to use the bags to package customer purchases.

In the USA, cities like San Francisco and Oakland in California also have banned the use of plastic grocery bags by retailers with stores over 10,000 square feet. Currently, more than 50 cities in the U.S. are considering banning the use of plastic shopping bags at retail (prmarily food stores) in one form or another.

Some countries in Africa have banned plastic shopping bags as well. Using a different strategy, the government of South Africa has required manufacturers to make plastic shopping bags much thicker, thus being more durable and expensive, than they normally are. As a result of this law, inacted five years ago, the government says there's been a 90% reduction in use because the bags are so much more expensive.

The government of Australia has recieved agreement from 90% of that country's retailers to stop using plastic bags, and is considering banning them outright nationwide. The state of Victoria already has its own ban on plastic bags.

In the United Kingdom (UK), Parliment is currently debating a ban for most of metropolitan Britian. Vancouver, BC. has banned plastic carrier bags in the city, and there is legislation to do so nationwide making its way through the governmental process in Canada. Other Canadian cities aren't waiting; they're pushing through their own local bag bans.

Ireland has placed a 15-cents per-bag tax on shoppers if they want to have their goods packed in plastic bags. The Irish goverment says there's been a 75% -to- 95% drop in consumer use of the bags since the tax was initiated two years ago. Similarly, in Tawian, the government now requires all retail food stores, convenience stores and restaurants to charge customers extra (a tax) if they want plastic bags and plastic serving utensils. According to the government, this has resulted in a 69% drop in the use of the plastic items over the last six years. The tax went into affect in 2001-2002.

Other states in the U.S., such as California, New York and New Jersey, have taken a different legislative approach instead of new taxes or fees. Last year, California past a statewide law which requires all grocers with stores over a certain size to place plastic bag recycling bins in their stores, and to offer reusable shopping bags for sale in every store. New York and New Jersey recently passed similar legislation for their respective states. Cities in each of these states have the right to ban plastic bags completely however.

Food retailers are getting into the picture on their own as well. U.S.-based Whole Foods Market, Inc. recently announced it will stop using plastic grocery bags in all its stores in the U.S., Canada and the UK in June of this year. Whole Foods will offer only100% recyclable paper bags in its stores, as well as sell reusable grocery carrier bags. The grocer already gives shoppers a 5-cent per bag discount on their grocery purchases for every reusable bag they bring with them to the store, as do many other grocery retailers.

Trader Joe's, the popular U.S. specialty grocer with over 300 stores, doesn't offer plastic bags in its stores at all--never has. Instead it encourages shoppers to use reusable shopping bags, gives them a per-bag discount for doing so, and offers paper bags which it says are made from 100% post-consumer recycled paper.

Why all the focus on plastic shopping or grocery bags?
The reason plastic shopping or grocery bags have been the primary focus of legislation, taxes and outright bans throughout the world is because they are generally the most prevelant form of plastic litter or waste. They clog landfills, taking ages to biodegrade, are found all over the roadsides and elsewhere, and are one of the most common sources of that floating plastic refuse vortex described by the scientists at the top of this story.

Plastic shopping bags however are far from the only source of plastic clogging landfills, being thrown all over the roadsides, and clogging that floating plastic garbage dump in the Pacific Ocean. Legislating, taxing and banning the use of plastic shopping bags might be a good first step, but it's dealing with only a tiny fraction of the problem.

What to do?
What's needed in our view is a comprehensive, market-based and public policy-based effort to deal with the entire disposable plastic waste issue. This effort must invlove all stakeholders: consumers, retailers, product manufacturers who use plastics, plastics manufacturers, governments and non-governmental organization.

We believe countries, states, provinces and cities have the right to legislate, tax and ban the use of plastic bags and other plastic containers and materials. We essentially support much of what's being done on that front in fact.

However, we have a few problems with it to date. First, the scope of the focus is too narrow. As we said above, plastic shopping bags might be a good first step, but its just the tip of the iceberg.

Second, the legislation, taxes and bans are so piecemeal they will end-up causing much confusion in the long run. We don't know how this can be avoided as such piecemeal legislation is part of being a soveriegn government. And in countries like the U.S. and most of the Western world, which use some form of Federalism, states and cities and other localities have the right to make their own laws and create taxation policies within various national restrictions. Further, one can't expect a less-developed country to be able to enact the same type of laws as a developed and rich one.

Lastly, and most importantly, we want to see a mix of market-based incentives (carrots), increased environmental education, and disincentives (sticks) like taxes, legislation and outright bans when needed to address the entire plastic packaging and disposable waste issue.

Towards a comprehensive approach
What do we mean by a comprehensive approach, using a combination of market-based ideas and government public policy: taxes, legislation, bans, and the like?

First, a comprehensive approach is key. This includes governments, the private sector and citizens being onboard. And, of course, this will very from country-to-country. Totalitarian states like China can announce a ban on plastic bags in January, like they did, and say it will go into affect a mere six months later in June (which it will) without any objection. It's a bit harder--thankfully so--in more democratic countries.

We are far from having the answers to a problem as large as this. Nor do we even pretend to know the solution. However, what we do have are ideas, and a framework, which is the comprehensive carrot and stick approach we described above.

Below is our suggestions and basic overview of how such an approach to trying to solve the plastic waste issue and the associated health, ecological and economic problems that come with it might work.

First, it's a fact that if citizens were more responsible, recycled plastics regularly where it's available, didn't litter, and were more careful with their personal consumption, the issue would probably be at least onlyhalf as bad as it currently is. As such, any discussion of solving the problem we believe must start from the point of personal and indivual responsibility.

Left to their own devices however, we suspect it will take many decades or more for individuals to see the "green" light and become more environmentally responsible. We must say though that compared to let's say the 1980's, just 25 years ago, environmental responsibility among most consumers has increased dramatically. This has been largely because of environmental education programs created by various groups and governments and aimed at consumers. Over the last 10 years the private sector also has started to jump in and offer such education as well. It works. Not near 100% of course. But it has a positive effect over time.

Education: The first part of our comprehensive solution model then is a dramatic increase globally in environmental and ecological education as it relates to the use of plastics and its affect on the environment. This effort needs to be paid for by taxpayers, plastic companies, manufacturers who sell plastic goods, and the retailers who sell them. A joint effort, with all stakeholders buying in. What's needed is at least double the environmental educational efforts we see today.

Industry R&D Economic Incentive Package: The second part of this comprehensive blueprint involves government and the plastics industry. Governments in those countries that have plastics manufacturers should create a massive program, including tax incentives and other economic bonuses, with a mandate to the plastics industry to come up with more rapidly-biodegrading plastic bags, bottles, containers and the like.

This incentive package--say an initial five year program--comes with a stick: that if the plastic companies take the economic incentives but don't make progress, they will face further legislation, more taxes and other penalties. These are all coming anyway--so they would be wise to get onboard if such an incentive package comes there way.

Industry Efforts and Pressure: Product manufacturers must put more pressure on the plastics' industry to innovate better and faster, creating new plastics from plant-based products that biodegrade faster. Retailers in turn need to put more heat on their suppliers who use plastic packaging to create products--like concentrated laundry detergents for example--that reduce plastic in the packaging, and to even innovate new packaging that eliminates plastic completely.

Retailers also need to increasingly make policy decisions like Whole Foods' has on its self-banning of plastic bags, and like Wal-Mart is doing with its recently introduced packaging scorecard, which will eventually mandate that its suppliers use a minimum of 25% less plastic in their packages than they currently do, or else the retailer will not buy that particular item from the supplier. This policy process at retail--the place where the consumer and the retailer interact directly--not only will help eliminate much plastics waste in the short run, it also will have the long run result--if practiced by enough big retail chains--of making the plastics industry realize they better innovate and make changes or face serious sales losses.

For example, are disposable plates made out of plastic really a good thing? They are far too durable for just a single-use and then disposal. On the other hand, they don't hold up well in the dishwasher. How many people really wash them by hand (you can get multiple-uses that way). Probably zero. Paper plates, which can be recycled, and reusable plates, which can be washed by hand or go in the dishwasher and last for decades, are the way to go. Disposable plastic plates, which are sort of a mid-point between recyclable paper and reusable plates, are an example of what we feel is a superfluous product. Companies of course have the right to make the plastic disposable plates, but the demand is questionable.

Retailers also must increase the pressure on their suppliers to go back to the plastics industry and let them know that if they don't innovate at a much faster place they stand to loose business because the suppliers' customers, the retailers, are telling them they want source- reduction, rapid biodegradable plastics, and other innovations.

Consumer Power: Consumers must also get more skin in this game. They need to start voting more with their shopping dollars. Buying more products packaged minimally or alternatively, eliminating purchases of plastic utensils and other items that have alternatives, and telling their grocers and other retailers they demand less plastic in the products they buy. This includes bringing their own reusable shopping bags to the store, saying no to excessive plastic takeout food packaging, and a myriad of other consumer-focused behaviors, which are probably the most important factors or elements of all those described in this blueprint.

Law Enforcement: Government(s) needs to get serious in terms of fines and penalties for littering and other unlawful waste disposal. Something on the order of a $500 fine for tossing a plastic grocery bag or water bottle in the street might provide an economic incentive for people to avoid doing so the next time they think about it.

Legislation: Legislation will continue along the lines it currently is. Some countries creating laws which try to influence behavior, others creating new taxes on plastic packaging (like the bag legislation), and still others passing outright bans. Our only thought here is that to the greatest extent possible, governments should try to shoot for uniformity when they can. It does little overall good in the larger sense to have a plastic bag ban in San Francisco, for example, when plastic bag use in South San Francisco, less than a mile away, is legal. States and provinces will have to take the lead on this uniformity for it to happen.

In some cases outright bans might be needed. We are pretty free-choice when it comes to such things. However, we also realize that at times problems can be so serious that such free choice has to be modified: You can't drive drunk in most places in the world, minors can't buy tobacco products, grocers must keep there stores clean, and even in the U.S. you can get arrested for yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre if there really isn't a fire.

In the case of plastic bags, we think its time for most retailers to just say no more to the use of the regular, non-biodegradable plastic bags. There are decent biodegradable bags on the market--and they are getting better. There's really no reason, except not wanting to invest, that plastics companies can't make a superior biodegradeable shopping bag today. The science is there. All that's required is some investment. A few more Whole Foods'-style self plastic bag bans by big retailers--Wal-Mart, Target, Safeway, Kroger for example--and we will see a superior, biodegradable shopping bag on the market in no time flat.

Plastics Fees or Taxes: We think its time for countries like the U.S., the UK and others to creeate a plastics fee or tax structure. This fee or tax would be shared by the plastics industry, manufactuerers who make plastic products and use plastic packaging (laundry detergent, milk jugs and the like), retailers and consumers. Everybody needs to be all in. If you're not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

For example, lets use a plastic gallon milk jug or laundry detergent bottle to illustrate our example. Everybody down the line--the company that made the plastic, the consumer products' company or milk processor who uses the plastic container, the wholesaler or retail chain that buys it, and consumers who purchase the product at the store, would all pay some portion of a per-unit fee for the item. The same would be the case with plastic packaging, products like toothbrushes, disposable razors and on and on.

The proceeeds from this across the board, shared tax would go into a fund in the respective country. The fund would be used for plastics product and packaging innovation, creating new, alternatives to plastic packaging, and for the clean-up of the lands and the seas.

As we've said, ours is a big picture blueprint. It's designed to stimulate thought and further ideas. Obviously, god, or the devil, is in the details, which would have to be worked out on a country-by-country basis.

The time to start acting on all these fronts is now. That floating plastic refuse mass in the ocean is only going to get bigger. More seabirds and mammals will die. And we know that when other species are dying in large numers of a specific cause, its likely we can be affected similarly in time.

The world's landfills also are getting fuller. Taxpayers are the ones who will have to pay for new ones. Taxpayers also pay for the litter cleanup, and will eventually have to foot the bill for the ocean mess, unless a tax-sharing scheme like we described above is worked out so that industry shares in the costs and solutions as well as taxpayers. There will be many future costs that will have to be paid as well as scientists and others make further discoveries.

Further, we all know about oil, the primary ingredient in plastics. Its getter more expensive, people are killing for it, and it is running out. A greener solution to the plastics situation makes sense not only morally, but also ecologically, economically and health-wise. In fact, its ultimately a survival issue.





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