It’s pervasive, persistent, produced from petrochemicals. It takes many forms and can be found as lightweight Styrofoam packaging, rigid polyvinyl chloride pipes, polyethylene water bottles, high-density polyethylene laundry and milk bottles, nylon ropes and nets and thousands of variations and applications. Look around you and count all the things made of drastic plastic.
Our modern food service is largely dependent on its insulating, waterproof qualities, when used in food packaging, beverage bottles, produce and ZipLoc bags, Tupperware and polystyrene foam containers for our take-out or coffee cups. Many of these qualify as “single-use” plastics, packaged for convenience and easily disposed, or not-so-easily recycled and repurposed.
Though omnipresent in our 21st century world, plastic did not exist at all until 1907, when Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented a synthetic polymer that proved both viable and inexpensive. Bakelite, the early phenol formaldehyde resin he developed and which bears his name, was used to make buttons, jewelry, telephones, children’s toys and more, and is often coveted by collectors.
With the continuing development of many types of plastic, global production grew from 1.5 million metric tons (mt) in 1950, reaching 100mt in 1989, 200mt in 2002 and accelerating to 335mt in 2016.
Along the way, it became apparent that cheap, sturdy, versatile plastic, while a boon to 20th century consumer culture, was also a bane to the environment, and to the health of humans and many other living creatures. Notably, beyond the tonnage ending up in our landfills or as roadside litter, the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Captain Charlie Moore put plastic on people’s radar as a persistent pollutant in the world’s oceans. It’s estimated that 80 percent of all marine debris is some form of plastic.
Last month, more than 30 Hawaii marine debris experts, scientists and eco-advocates spent a week in San Diego at the sixth International Marine Debris Conference. The Hawaii contingent joined more than 700 attendees from 50 countries, a considerable increase from the fifth IMDC, held in Honolulu with 200+ attending.
Dianna Cohen, a co-founder and CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, referred to this upswing as a “total revolution, a blossoming. All the studies on microplastics, microfibers and defining marine debris as plastic is a huge shift.”
Cohen is also an artist and curator, and spent years crafting elaborate artwork out of plastics and marine debris before an epiphany led her to help found PPC in 2011. She said she witnessed the plastic in her art degrading over time, and realized that’s also what happens in the world’s oceans, as smaller and smaller plastic pieces and fibers are ingested by sea life of all kinds: fish, turtles, crabs, plankton and seabirds, whose carcasses are sometimes found with more than a hundred plastic pieces in their bellies.
Plastic Pollution Coalition currently includes 721 groups from 60 countries, and a number of notable actors and musicians. Its website (Plasticpollutioncoalition.org) features an ocean of information, such as their Global Plastic Reduction Toolkit.
“I don’t want to take on the entire petrochemical industry,” says Cohen, “I believe we should go for the low hanging fruit.” She believes local legislative campaigns to restrict plastic bags, polystyrene, straws and bottled water are all doable.” She advocates adding a fourth “R” to Reduce-Reuse-Recycle dictum; Refuse single-use plastic.
The opening plenary at the 6-IMDC quickly brought the enormity of the issues into focus. Sir David Attenborough, British naturalist and narrator of the Life on Earth broadcasts stated in a video message that, “If we were clever enough to invent plastics, we should be smart enough to get rid of or control them.”
Barbara Hendrie of the United Nations Environmental Programme, North America termed the issues, “One of the greatest challenges of our times.” She stated that we need informed citizens and “We need strong government policies to require a circular model where we produce and re-use.”
But keynote speaker Afroz Shaw, a lawyer from Mumbai, India urged immediate action. “Don’t wait for the big boys [government] to tell you what to do,” Shaw said. “We don’t need a law to tell us what is right to do on our planet.” Shaw was honored as a UN 2016 Champion of the Earth for organizing the World’s Biggest Beach Cleanup project on Versova beach where he played on as a child.
Habib El-Habr is the Coordinator for the UNEP Global Programme for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land Based Activities. He dropped a bombshell by informing the audience that plastics production is slated to increase by some 40 percent, up to 500 million tons by 2025 and 600mt by 2030.
“Ultimately this is a problem of design,” he said. “How on Earth can we bear this increasing amount of plastic if we can’t handle it now?”
El-Habr also called for Expanded Producer Responsibility, re-thinking production and consumption,” said El-Habr. “Do we really need straws when we order our juice, microplastics in our cosmetics and microbeads in our toothpaste?”
Conrad McKerron of As You Sow works with the big guys. His presentation on Mobilizing Markets for Social Change related his strategies for forming a socially responsible investment community. McKerron regularly attends shareholders meetings of corporations that are the biggest plastic users: Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Unilever. Some are listening, and are working to modify some packaging such as drink pouches, which currently have no recycling.
Corporations McKerron said are not responding include Mondelez (Oreo), Kraft/Heinz and Kroger. He reiterated that there are more plastic factories scheduled to be built in years to come, due to a glut of cheap fossil fuels extracted by fracking, and the gradual shift away from liquid fuels as demand increases for electric vehicles.
Stiv Wilson of The Story of Stuff drove that point home. He cited an article in The Guardian that reported 318 new projects fueled by a $180 billion investment since 2010 by fossil fuel giants Exxon, Shell and others, according to the American Chemistry Council.
Perhaps the most passionate, articulate speaker was 17-year old Melati Wijsen, born and raised on Bali and a member of the Youth Advisory Council for World Oceans Day. When just 12 years old, she and her sister launched an effort called Bye Bye Plastic Bags, which has helped galvanize advocacy across their island of three million people and beyond. She spoke of youth empowerment, proclaiming that, “We are 25 percent of the population, but 100 percent of the future.”
One of the main take home messages was that used or discarded plastic has low value, and most types are difficult to recycle or repurpose. There were a few notable exceptions, such as David Stover of Bureo, which converts discarded fishing nets into premium products including skateboard decks, surfboard fins and sunglasses.
Brodie Neill, originally from Tasmania and working in London, developed techniques to incorporate hard plastics in his museum quality furniture pieces. Apparel company Adidas recently reported they sold one million pairs of shoes made from ocean plastic last year in collaboration with the environmental group Parley for the Oceans.
“Recycling alone is not the solution,” said Stover. But it may lead to a significant carbon reduction compared to incinerating discarded plastics or producing new ones, he said.
HAWAII EFFORTS AND INITIATIVES
Hawaii’s marine debris efforts and scientific studies were featured in a number of 6-IMDC technical sessions. University of Hawaii researchers reported impacts of microplastics on marine organisms, including zooplankton. Surfrider Kauai has taken on removal of massive fishing net balls from the beaches and coastlines of the Garden Island. Natalie McKinney and Doorae Shin of Kokua Hawaii Foundation related many of their initiatives and education efforts, including Plastic Free Hawaii and designing a Zero Waste footprint for the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2016, which hosted 10,000 people from 160 countries.
Musician Jack Johnson and his wife Kim founded Kokua Hawaii Foundation and were both panelists. They spoke of efforts to have their concert tours avoid plastic bottles and other throwaways. Surfrider hosted a small rooftop showing of Jack’s film Smog of the Sea at a quaint restaurant in Pacific Beach, overlooking San Diego’s Mission Bay. The film follows a research boat through the calm waters of the Sargasso Sea, where their “manta trawler” net turned up tiny plastic pieces virtually every time they sampled. And Jack graced the audience with a couple of his classic tunes.
In 2014, Fawn Liebengood was a co-founder of 808 Cleanups, adding a beach and ocean element to original efforts targeting graffiti on Oahu hiking trails. While many Hawaii organizations may do monthly, quarterly or annual cleanups, 808 conducts them four times daily. In 2017 they picked up 135,000 pounds of trash, with the help of 5,688 volunteers.
Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii began as a nonprofit in 2010, and has grown to one of the premier cleanup and education groups working throughout the islands. Led by a small team including Executive Director Kahi Pacarro and scores of volunteers, their Ocean Plastics program has helped recycle over 200,000 pounds of marine debris plastic since 2011.
Megan Lamson of Hawaii Wildlife Fund and Lauren Blickley, a Maui marine biologist and owner of Swell Consulting co-hosted a session detailing Hawaii as leaders in passing measures to restrict plastics and curb marine debris. “Maui has progressively moved towards more sustainable solutions and is recognized as a leader in the effort to break free from our dependency on plastics, said Blickley.
They detailed the plastic bag ban, passed first by Maui County in 2010, with the other three counties following suit by 2015. Tobacco Free beaches and parks passed the Maui County Council in 2014 on an astonishingly fast track, in large part to high school student participation. Maui County was the first to pass restrictions on polystyrene food service wear, culminating in five to six years of efforts hampered by industry lobbyists, including the American Chemistry Council.
Food service vendors and retailers must discontinue using polystyrene foam after December 31 of this year or face stiff fines. Hawaii Island passed a similar measure soon after, and at press time, state Senate Bill 2498 is still alive. If passed, it would distinguish Hawaii as the first state to institute such a bill.
“Plastic pollution is a global issue, but the solutions start locally,” said Blickley.
MORE FROM MAUI
In late January, the US Coast Guard reported a two-mile long marine debris mass in the Ka Iwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu and issued a navigation warning. The mass was tracked by the USCG, UH researchers, National Marine Fisheries Service and the NOAA Marine Debris Program, one of the principal sponsors and organizers of 6-IMDC. Though it did not make landfall, the debris field of nets, ropes, drums, floats and drums provided a reminder that such massive bundles provide a threat to not only navigation, but to marine creatures.
Ed Lyman of the Maui-based Hawaiian Islands Whale Entanglement Network has a job description that would surely have stumped contestants on the old TV show, What’s My Line. A NOAA employee, Lyman and partner Dave Mattila have freed 17 whales of 68 entangled cetaceans spotted since 2002. They have removed over 7,000 feet of rope and line, some traced to gear from as far away as the Aleutians and Southeast Alaska–2,450 nautical miles from Hawaii.
Repurposed fabric made from recycled fishing nets is the closed-loop solution for stylish swimwear designed by two Maui women, Kelley Chapman and Anna Lieding of Manakai Swimwear. Chapman has been around water much of her life, working on boats and for a bikini company before forging out on her own in 2015. Through her extensive research and vetting she discovered that the fashion industry is one of the top global polluters after agri-biz/meat and fossil fuels. Often, as well, there may be social justice issues on how the garments are made.
The company’s nylon fabrics are sourced from two European re-manufacturers, Econyl and Carvico-Vita. Chapman noted that some 70 million barrels of crude oil is used annually making fabrics used mainly for swimsuits and yoga wear. It’s no wonder the Manakai Swimwear website includes the following quote: “Sustainability is the new sexy.”
WHAT CAN WE DO RIGHT NOW?
Dianna Cohen of Plastic Pollution Coalition says we can invest in reusable water bottles and coffee containers (steel rather than hard plastic is preferred), give them as gifts and encourage others to do the same. She likes giving out stainless steel straws, which she considers a “gateway” to further conversations and meaningful actions.
Seabury School honor student Camry Gach recently completed her eighth grade project, which she titled, “Reducing Waste on Maui.” She completed six components for her project: Producing a hilarious educational video on choosing to avoid plastic packaging (you can see it on YouTube); held a zero-waste birthday party; went door-to-door in her neighborhood to spread awareness; conducted a beach cleanup and evaluated the types of trash collected; started a vermi-compost bin, using worms to consume food waste; and volunteered for a large zero-waste event at Ho‘omau.
Like Melati Wijsen of Bali’s Bye Bye Plastic Bags, Camry Gach’s efforts and youth empowerment point the way for us all to do something, anything to step back from the proliferation of throwaway plastics that surround us.
What will your Earth Day pledge this year?
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photo of plastic pollution: Anders Lyon
Photo of Camry Gach courtesy Camry Gach