One day in Brooklyn, New York, the marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson saw a man holding an iced coffee in a single-use plastic cup. He sipped from a trendy metal straw. Johnson did a double take, according to The New York Times, and resisted the urge to knock the coffee out of his hand and say, “Dude, you’re totally missing the point.”
This seemingly well-intentioned guy was solving one problem while creating another. The crusade against single-use plastic has saturated the cultural discourse so much that it can sometimes be hard to step back and remember what, exactly, is the point. The point, of course, is curbing the world’s addiction to plastic, which we’ve been demanding more and more of since it was invented in the 1800s.
According to a 2017 study in Science Advances, 79 percent of the plastic created to date has ended up in landfills or the “natural environment,” which is to say, on the side of the road, on the beach or in the ocean. Somewhere between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons of plastic reportedly wind up in the ocean every year.
A multitude of individuals, nonprofits, corporations, foundations, startups, policymakers and social media influencers have now taken up the torch of cleaning plastic pollution from the ocean. "Public interest and research initiatives are at an all-time high,” says Alex Schulze, co-founder and CEO of 4ocean, an ocean cleanup and advocacy purpose-driven business founded in 2017.
In addition, as part of a larger shift toward environmentally and socially responsible business, myriad corporations have sponsored beach cleanup days, taken pledges to reduce single-use plastic in their operations, and begun to examine their supply chains to see where they can weed out plastic. The marine industry is no exception: In February, thanks to water bottle fill stations sponsored by Costa’s Kick Plastic initiative, the Miami International Boat Show reduced the number of single-use plastic bottles 50 percent over last year.
As the ocean plastics movement reaches adolescence, here’s a look at where we’ve been and where we’re headed.
In 2015, a researcher at Texas A&M University, Christine Figgener, posted a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostril. The video went viral, and the nascent project of ridding the ocean of plastic turned into a full-on assault on one particular offender: straws.
The concept of saying no to straws caught on with celebrities, professional athletes and influencers. Lonely Whale’s #StopSucking campaign led to a citywide ban on plastic straws in Seattle, and other coastal cities followed suit, including Miami Beach and Fort Myers in Florida, and Malibu in California. Starbucks announced that it would phase out plastic straws by the end of this year, eliminating about 1 billion plastic straws the company goes through annually.
Critics were quick to point out that the sheer level of excitement around banning plastic straws was incongruous with the fact that straws account for a tiny percentage of total ocean plastic pollution. There were bigger fish to fry.
Next up: banning plastic shopping bags. These campaigns were a lot less catchy than #StopSucking. California banned some plastic bag uses in 2014, but other states have been slow to follow suit. New York’s plastic bag ban went into effect in March, just as the novel coronavirus hit the United States. During the pandemic, many states have eschewed reusable bags for their potential to transmit the virus.
Getting rid of straws and single-use shopping bags posed minimal lifestyle changes to consumers, who could continue about their lives knowing that they were making a small but positive step toward healthier oceans. The consumer demand for a straw- and plastic-bag-free world prompted corporate decision makers to phase out these products, and put weight behind local and state legislatures to craft, if not pass, policy changes.
The question remains whether individual actions can ever match the scale of the ocean plastics problem. Volunteers can glimpse the scope during beach cleanup days, which have become a ubiquitous form of community service, but the plastic that washes up on beaches is just a small portion of the plastic in the ocean.
The rest is at sea, much of it degraded by the sun into microplastics that are suspended in the water column. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most famous example. The Ocean Cleanup Project is attempting to clean it up using large booms with hanging screens that collect microplastics while allowing sea life to pass underneath. The company has operated in fits and starts during the past several years as it refines the system.
4ocean is also attempting to address the problem of scale. Its crews use fishing nets, booms and skimmers to collect trash that is then sorted, ground and “pelletized,” at which point it can be made into new products. 4ocean says it has recovered over 9 million pounds of plastic in Indonesia, Guatemala, Haiti and Florida since 2017.
Lia Colabello, a plastic pollution consultant who manages Costa’s Kick Plastic initiative, says some brands are now attempting to move past quick fixes and focus on products that are “designed for recovery.” That means sunglasses made from recycled fishing nets like Costa’s Untangled collection, boat shoes made from recycled ocean plastics like Sperry’s Bionic collection, and activewear from Adidas that aims to use 100 percent recycled polyester by 2024.
Colabello says consumers are becoming more accustomed to examining a brand’s environmental commitments before making a purchase, and if two products are otherwise the same, customers feel good about choosing the brand that adheres to their values. In a 2018 survey by the sustainability consultancy Futerra, 88 percent of respondents said they wanted brands to help them “be more environmentally friendly and ethical in daily life.”
The demand, and often willingness to pay a premium, for upcycled products was an evolution in the environmentally friendly lifestyle from the feel-good straw- and plastic-bag-bans and beach cleanups to something more self-aware. Brands understand that it’s not enough to just pluck plastic from the ocean and toss it in a landfill; if possible, it should be put to use for a prolonged life. Colabello and others refer to this as the “circular economy,” whereby products designed for reuse inhabit various incarnations throughout their lifetime, reducing the demand for new materials to make new products. The problem, right now, is cost. According to Fast Company, incorporating recycled materials into a drinking cup adds 2 to 4 cents per cup.
Moving to New Approaches
Mr. Trash Wheel is a barge that funnels trash from Baltimore Harbor into a dumpster. It takes two days to “eat” the 15 dumpsters’ worth of debris that enters the waterway after a single rainstorm. Since 2014, the Mr. Trash Wheel family (which includes Professor Trash Wheel and Captain Trash Wheel) has collected more than 715,000 plastic shopping bags, 11 million cigarette butts, 1.1 million styrofoam containers, one keg and one ball python, according to the Mr. Trash Wheel website. (The python was presumably set free.) Mr. Trash Wheel is so well-loved that it has its own livestream. Its big eyes and Pac-Man mouth seem to say, “cleaning up trash is fun!”
The work is important, but many would argue it isn’t fun. The next phase of the ocean plastics saga will be fundamentally harder than shunning straws and plastic bags, picking up trash on the beach, and creating upcycled products.
This new phase will take place in the halls of the U.S. Congress and state and local governments, where policy is made. “My hope is that with the increased focus and attention comes stronger legislation that will hold brands and oil companies accountable for either developing alternative materials or being made responsible for the waste they produce,” Schulze says.
This lobbying work has already begun. The National Marine Manufacturers Association recently supported the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, which would create a prize competition for innovative ocean cleanup projects, establish a pilot program to encourage fishermen to recycle waste found at sea, and expand vessel recycling efforts. The bill passed the U.S. Senate in January and is awaiting a U.S. House of Representatives vote. “While the Save our Seas 2.0 Act will not solve the entire marine debris problem, the measure represents a significant next step toward addressing the issue at home,” says Nicole Vasilaros, NMMA’s senior vice president of government and legal affairs.
The oceans are notoriously hard to govern. But cleaning up plastic, and finding ways to keep it from being chucked in the ocean in the first place, enjoys bipartisan support. A bill introduced in February, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, would hold manufacturers of single-use plastic products responsible for increasing the amount of recycled material in their products, and for ensuring that their products are properly disposed of. Among other provisions, the bill proposes a national standardized labeling system for recycling and compost bins, and limits the export of plastic waste.
This policy could represent a significant step in thinking about the ocean plastics problem. In 2018, the United States exported 429 shipping containers of “recycled” plastic daily to countries with dubious waste management practices. Much of it ended up in the ocean, a casualty of the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy that has created so many environmental disasters in the past.
“The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is the first comprehensive federal legislation to effectively address the plastic pollution crisis, finally tackling the problem at the source by requiring meaningful reductions in the production and use of single-use plastics,” says Christy Leavitt, the plastics campaign director for Oceana, a nonprofit policy organization. But it might take time to see the bill through. “With all of the issues facing our nation, it’s unclear how much legislation Congress will pass this year,” Leavitt says.
Now, Colabello says she thinks we’re at a tipping point. “A tipping point doesn’t have to be a day or a month,” she says. “A tipping point can be a five-year span.” She says the combination of consumer, corporate and political pressure is bringing about a paradigm shift. We are once again ratcheting up our expectations and ambitions, which are in turn widening our view of the world we hope to inhabit.
2020 Plastic Policy The Save Our Seas 2.0
Act of 2020: Supported by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, this bill would create a marine debris foundation that aids the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration along with local and state governments in “assessing, preventing, reducing and removing marine debris.” Additionally, the bill would establish a “genius prize” for innovative ocean cleanup concepts; commission a series of studies on microplastics and derelict fishing gear; and charge the Environmental Protection Agency with developing a comprehensive management plan for reducing plastic waste in waterways. Status: passed the Senate, awaiting a House vote.
The RECYCLE Act: Introduced in February, this bill calls on the EPA to establish a grant program for public education and outreach initiatives aimed at improving the efficacy of residential recycling programs. It also charges the EPA with developing a “model recycling program toolkit” for states, Tribes and local governments. Status: introduced in the House. The Break Free From
Plastic Pollution Act of 2020: This bill would phase out single-use plastics such as takeout utensils, establish a tax on carryout bags, and incentivize recycling by providing refunds on returned beverage containers. It also would charge plastic producers with collecting and managing post-consumer waste, and would establish baseline targets for including recycled materials in beverage containers. It would also limit plastic waste exports. Status: introduced in the House.
The Original Recycling Bottle Act of 2020: This bill, introduced in February and currently being discussed by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, would mandate that plastic bottles be recycled. Status: introduced in the Senate.
This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue.