System 001 at work in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. photo: The Ocean Cleanup
by Ron Kleinknecht
As I wrote in Part 1 of this series on plastic in our environment, our oceans are awash with all kinds of plastics to the tune of over 5 trillion pieces. (1) These items are now amassed in five patches or gyres around the world, the largest and the one to which we contribute is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Each piece of plastic that makes up these garbage patches entered the water through human hands or by human direction. Micro and macroplastics have been shown to be a serious hazard to sea life at all levels of the food web from zooplankton to whales. Although humans do ingest plastic particles, the jury is still out on how and if this exposure affects our health.
Plastic pollution is global and monumental. It is not some plague that happens elsewhere. It all starts somewhere. Recall that 80 percent of the garbage patch is land based, which means that it starts at home. And, that is in fact what we find on our own beaches.
To see what was happening in our own area, I took a couple of walks that covered five of our local beaches around Bellingham Bay. I expected our beaches to be pretty clean as we in Whatcom County tend to think of ourselves as very well informed and environmentally conscious. And we are big on recycling. In fact, from a distance the beaches looked pretty clean and not at all like those have we seen online.
On closer inspection I found that we too were contributing to the larger problem. On my short walks, I picked up what trash I could and left what was too big for me to carry (like a beached derelict fiberglass sailboat). The items found were largely the same plastic products seen in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As is the case for the ocean, is also for here, but of course on a less grand scale.
The attack on this monster plastic problem has begun internationally in terms of cleanup efforts and prevention, but we have an enormous task ahead of us.
The commonly heard directive of “Think globally, act locally,” is very apt concerning this problem in Whatcom County. There is indeed good action occurring locally to attack this problem and even heroic action on a more global level.
I’ll start to describe these efforts by looking at some of the larger-scaled activities before focusing on our own substantial work locally.
The sheer size of Great Pacific Garbage Patch has made some writers rather skeptical of ever being able to clean it up, but others are more optimistic and are plowing ahead into the herculean task. The foremost optimist is Boylan Slat, a 24-year-old from the Netherlands. (2) At age 16, on vacation on the Greek coast, Slat was seriously offended while diving, as he saw more plastic in the water than fish. On his return home to the Netherlands, he set to learning more about the ocean plastic problem and began orchestrating a plan to clean it up. That was seven years ago, and, in the meantime, he founded a nonprofit organization, Ocean Cleanup, and designed a system to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. On October 16, 2018, his idea came to fruition on a scale that is attacking the garbage patch head-on. (3)
Slat and his team have developed a passive floating system that takes advantage of the ocean currents and wind to move a 2,000-foot-long, U-shaped boom with a skirt or curtain that hangs 10 feet into the water and collects the plastic. No external power is used in the collection process, although solar power is generated for lighting and electronic operations (such as sensors that signal to a waiting collection ship when the system is full). The ship then pulls the net-like system up like a purse seiner, and returns the plastic to land where it will be recycled. (3)
System illustrated: Here is an illustrative video of how it works. https://www.theoceancleanup.com/technology/
Slat’s project, called System 001 or Wilson, is currently deployed in the Pacific Ocean, and is making modifications in its structure to optimize the actual cleanup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The project is scaled such that over time as many as 60 such units will be operating — which are projected to clean up 50 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years and 90 percent of the garbage patch by 2040. (4)
Although this is an encouraging event, in the long run it will do little good if it can’t keep ahead of the amount of plastic we spew into the oceans worldwide at the rate of one garbage truck per minute. (5) We all wish them luck but we will have to do our jobs on land if System 001 is to work.
The “act locally” or beach cleanup is happening around the world and provides us with an opportunity to keep ahead of System 001’s effort out in the Pacific.
Ongoing cleanup of Whatcom County and the Salish Sea is occurring both in our waters and on our beaches. As described in Part 1, I joined a cleanup group going to Locust Beach. This group was composed of local chapters of two national organizations: the Ocean Conservancy (6) and the Surfrider Foundation. (7, 8). There is a Surfrider chapter with Northwest Straits Commission and a WWU Student Surfrider club, both of which are dedicated to our local ocean and beach cleanup. Members of these and other groups are often found on Saturday mornings along the beaches of Whatcom County, toting buckets and bags full of beach debris. It occurs to me that, were it not for these groups, our beaches and shores would be a tangled mess of garbage and litter and unfit for us or our dogs, who love to romp in the sand and surf.
Other local groups involved in beach and water cleanup along Whatcom County shorelines:
• City of Bellingham: https://www.cob.org/services/environment
• Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association: http://www.n-sea.org/
• Northwest Straits Commission and Surfriders: http://www.nwstraits.org/
• RE Sources: http://www.re-sources.org/
• Students of the Salish Sea: https://www.studentsforthesalishsea.org/wwu-club.html
• Surfrider Foundation: https://www.surfrider.org/chapters/entry/northwest-straits# b’ham NWS chapter
• Whatcom Land Trust: http://www.whatcomlandtrust.org/
If you are interested in helping with beach cleanup, contact these groups through their websites to find more about their activities, scheduled cleanup parties and to support their efforts. These local groups and a number of others at the regional, state and national levels are actively involved in meeting this crisis. But they need lots of help. I am sure there are other groups that I’ve inadvertently missed. If so, perhaps they could write a letter to the editor describing their group’s activities.
The United States as a whole really needs to do better with its plastic recycling. Nationally, we recycle about nine percent while Europe manages to recycle 30 percent of its plastics. (9) Although I do not have local figures, it is my observation that we do considerably better than the national average and probably the state average as well. Believe it or not, many municipalities in our state do not even have curbside recycling services.
The next issue with recycling is what happens to it after it is placed in the recycle bin — because “recycling does not just happen in your blue bin.” Today, much and perhaps most plastic goes into landfills. Until recently, much was sent to China, which imported 45 percent of the world’s recycled plastic. That has now been cut off, leaving many countries with landfill as their main alternative. (9)
This state of affairs highlights the point that the United States, as well as the rest of the world, needs to find alternative and innovative ways to repurpose our plastic waste. And as with so many other things, it comes down to economics. If we can find more ways to decompose used plastic and make it into economical products, we will likely make some headway. For example, Japan now makes all reusable plastic bottles of clear plastic. When colors are added to plastic bottles, as is often done, more processing is required to break down the plastic and to reuse the material. (9) We need to do better at recycling and repurposing plastic, but we can’t stop there.
There are many ways to approach the prevention component of this action plan to curb the plastic storm. One major approach that is gaining steam is through legislation limiting uses of plastic products at the international, national, state and local levels. Fortunately, progress is occurring on all of these fronts.
The United Nations is taking the lead in a number of efforts to enlist member nations to get on board with actions to curb the proliferation of one of the largest polluters, such as banning single-use plastic shopping bags. (10)
As of December 2017, more than 200 countries have committed to a U.N. plan to stop plastic waste entering the ocean. (11) Although not legally binding, it is of interest that many of the signers are those that are the major contributors to the problem such as China, Bangladesh and about 15 African countries. (12)
Of particular note is that Indonesia, the second largest contributor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch behind only China, has pledged to reduce its marine litter by 70 percent by 2025. (13) Indeed, they really need to clean their waters up as illustrated by the recent fact that a dead sperm whale was found washed ashore on November 2018 on an Indonesian beach. This whale had 13 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including 115 plastic cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags and two flip flops. (14) If Indonesia can institute this reduction, it will have a significant effect on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and save thousands of marine creatures.
The European Union is charging ahead as well in that their Parliament has passed legislation to ban many of the top 10 single-use plastic items found on European Union beaches, such as cutlery, plates, and straws. Use restrictions are placed on other items for which no immediate replacement is available, such as plastic fishing gear. (15)
Australia, too, has banned single-use bags as part of a national push to reduce waste. Retailers in four of six Australian states now face fines for using plastic bags. (16)
Closer to home and on the Salish Sea, Vancouver, B.C. is currently developing a single-use plastic reduction strategy. They report that, “Each week, more than two million plastic bags and two million disposable cups are thrown in the garbage in Vancouver” at a cost of $2.5 million a year to pick up. (17)
In October 2018, a bipartisan Save Our Seas Act of 2018 was passed by both houses and signed by the president. (18) Although not a new program, this act reauthorized funding for the NOAA Marine Debris Program through 2022 with allocations of $10 million per year. This program works to reduce debris through research, prevention and reduction. The Save Our Seas Act also encourages the administration to engage world leaders, especially those who are the largest contributors (e.g. China), to join international efforts in solving this plastic pollution problem.
U.S. states are also at work, as currently 37 have some type of legislative activity working toward statewide bans on plastic bags. At this writing, 16 cities and two counties in Washington state have adopted bans on single-use plastic bags, and others are considering similar ordinances. (19) A bill to ban them statewide was submitted in our last Legislative session, but did not pass. However, new bills are now prepared to be introduced into the House and Senate when it convenes in January, 2019. (20) Perhaps we can encourage our local representatives to support this bill.
Starbucks has recently pledged $10 million over the next three years to research new coffee cups that can be more widely recycled and composted. In addition they will eliminate plastic straws by introducing recyclable strawless lids. (21)
Clothing manufacturer Patagonia continues research and development in their search for fibers that shed less microfiber on washing. They currently market a bag into which one can insert a jacket that catches microfibers during washing. They also have a washing machine filter system that can catch microfibers before they are pumped into the sewer. (22)
An even more innovative approach to plastic fiber reduction is the use of bioengineered fabric grown in a lab. Researchers at the Fashion Institute of Technology are using algae to form yarns and to grow fabrics that are strong and flexible. Some of these fabrics can be grown in molds to produce end products without cutting or sewing, and they are biodegradable. (23)
Another business-related program to reduce plastic use and waste is an initiative by the Surfrider Foundation called the Ocean-Friendly Restaurants Program. The Surfrider Foundation grants eating establishments this designation with certification if they conform to good plastic reduction practices. These practices include using no styrofoam or plastic bags, using only reusable tableware, giving straws only on demand, and following proper recycling procedures. (24) So far, seven Bellingham restaurants have received such designation. Information on them can be found on this website: https://www.surfrider.org/programs/ocean-friendly-restaurants.
There are many, many more practices and programs in operation locally and around the globe combating this scourge that we have unleashed upon ourselves. I apologize to those programs that I did not mention. But, here you see a hint of the huge efforts that are afoot. A worthy effort is well underway, but there is a very long way to go.
We are unlikely to totally eliminate our use of plastic in the foreseeable future and zero use is not necessarily desirable. Plastic is too much a part of our civilization, as it includes housing, fabrication, clothing, cars, computers, boats, toys, food packaging, fishing lines, poles and nets. The list goes on. Clearly some plastics can be repurposed, remolded, and biodegradable alternatives can be found for some. We clearly need activity on all of these fronts: clean up the mess we’ve made, give up some conveniences, reuse all that we can, and support research for alternative materials and repurposing.
Given the current tsunami of plastic, we have to start somewhere. Listed below are a few things each of us can do to help.
1. Do not litter with plastics, especially near beaches or waterways.
2. Pick up plastic litter when you see it and dispose properly.
3. Use no more plastic bags, containers or products than absolutely necessary.
4. Buy food products with recyclable containers. (Many meat containers are now recyclable or compostable.)
5. Patronize establishments and products that seek to reduce their use of plastic, such as Ocean Friendly Restaurants.
6. Buy in bulk and use your own paper or cloth bag.
7. Join beach and stream cleanup parties to collect garbage.
8. Support groups cited in this article that steward our beaches and waterways.
9. Ask political candidates their positions on funding water cleanup both locally and globally, and vote accordingly.
10. Buy clothing with natural fibers and wash clothing with synthetic fibers less frequently in a front-load washing machine.
Given a distribution of 2,000 copies of this paper and that it is expected that three people will read each copy, if those 6,000 readers did some or all of these activities they would make a measurable dent in our local plastic problem. If you were to pass this article on to friends and relatives and enlist them into the community-wide plastic reduction and cleanup project, the effect would multiply. Let’s all get on board.
1. Whatcom Watch, December, 2018. http://whatcomwatch.org/index.php/article/plastic-pollution-comes-home-to-our-beaches/
Ron Kleinknecht is professor emeritus of psychology and dean emeritus of Western Washington University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is a lifelong nature and conservation enthusiast who writes about the Pacific Northwest.