Plastic Surgery: Hawaii, Science, NGOs and The American Chemistry Council

ExclusiveThe clash over plastic, and a surprising industry admission.

The Fifth International Marine held a week ago on Oahu was like the prom for plastic garbage nerds. All sides of the issue converged on Oahu. There were the cool kids (Jack Johnson strumming some tunes), the industry guys sporting pleated pants held up by braided belts (evaporating bad cologne), science dorks walking quickly from point A to point B without so much as noticing the sun, and vociferous activists pumped up on coffee. It was many fish in a small pond, a full net of stakeholders concerned with how the chemical bottom line translates to plastic pollution in our shared ocean. The general tenor of the NGOs was simple: call a spade a spade. Calling plastic pollution ‘marine debris’ is ducking the problem. Calling it what it is, makes people act. And after this conference, I’d expect we’re going to see this issue amplified.

Starting with the Science

What we know, is that we don’t know a lot. Expeditions to sample the ocean surface for plastic are expensive, and precious few have ever made it out of port. I spoke with Kara Lavendar Law, from SEA Education, who has the most data on plastic distribution in the ocean. SEA has been monitoring plankton for over twenty years in the North Atlantic and Caribbean, and as a result, has pulled up a lot of plastic in their samples. While we’ve only really heard about the North Pacific Garbage Patch in the media, there exists much more data on the North Atlantic, thanks to Law and her team. The situation is startling: 6.5 pounds to 184 pounds per square kilometer of water. (There are 315 million square kilometers of ocean on planet earth – and we’ve only been packaging everything we consume in plastic for 40 years.) It’s important to note, however, that outside of the gyres, plastic is still present, but ostensibly in smaller quantities – though this isn’t for certain. From personal experience, having sailed three times across both the North and South Atlantic conducting sampling, I’ve never seen a plastic-free sample.

What’s most surprising about SEA’s data is that it suggests plastic density has flatlined over 20 years. A scientist isn’t going to to go on the record making claims without proof, but she will pose the questions: Where is it going? Is it sinking? Consumption and population are both going up, which means more plastic is going into the ocean, so why is the data flatlining? The plastic has to be going somewhere. Various theories float around at the conference. Nearly every scientist believes that input is getting greater but to date, there has been no comprehensive study of the ocean floor for plastic pollution.


I spoke with the American Chemistry Council representatives at the conference. Their massive public relations problem is oceanic plastic pollution. These are the guys who have to deal with fourth graders asking them why they kill turtles. The American Chemistry council represents all the companies that produce the resins that the manufacturers make everything plastic out of. They like the “Marine Debris” label because it encompasses all the jetsam in the ocean. But what’s out there is plastic. As if sea turtles weren’t bad enough, there’s the even bigger publicity nightmare: dangerous chemicals in mothers’ breast milk. That’s the kind of issue that drives public outcry and policy that limits their activities on the books.

Mostly, they’ve tried to promote recycling as the solution, even though the capture rates post consumer are so low they almost cease to matter (3-12%) worldwide. The real problem, though, is that recycling doesn’t work. You can’t make a bag out of a bag, and this is hardly an extreme claim from an environmentalist contingent. The industry is well aware of this, which I confirmed when I spoke with Mark Daniels of Hilex Poly, the largest recycler of polyethylene in the country.

Here’s why recycling doesn’t work: to make another bag, 70% virgin content is introduced in the new bag, along with 30% post consumer. The result of recycling one bag roughly introduces 3.3 new bags into the waste stream. Daniels didn’t like that I was using math, but finally, after asking him this question: “So, is this a fair statement: no matter how much you recycle, no matter how much recycling infrastructure you build, the net result of recycling is more plastic in the world, bags or otherwise?” His answer, simply enough, was “Yes.” (I almost fell out of my chair.) By his own admission, the net result of recycling compounds the plastic problem rather than ameliorating it. Daniels used the phrase “Cradle to Cradle” several times and I kept asking him to define what that means. He couldn’t. He’s making three cradles out of one cradle and they’re made of plastic. The interest in recycling is economic, not stewardship. What they fear is that people will quit consuming their products. Recycling is a system neatly built to ensure perpetual consumption by duping people into believing they’re doing something good for the environment.

Now, you can make a PETE bottle out of a PETE bottle, but the regulations to make it food safe again makes it cost prohibitive. For the most part, the only thing that can be made from recycling plastic is another plastic product. Whether they’re durable goods or single-use isn’t really the point. Plastic is plastic.

The NGOs and Activists

These are the people flaming pissed about belly-up sea turtles, bird carcasses with lighters in them, seals strangled by plastic box ties, fish caught in six pack rings. They’re also mad about everyone – you, me, your children – being full of chemicals from plastic. The American Chemistry Council sponsored this conference (as did Coca-Cola), so it appears at least that they’re trying to engage the activist and science community more transparently. As an activist, getting an ACC official on the phone has been an incredibly difficult task and here, at the conference, they were subject to all the major activists working on this issue. They don’t like that we’re going after bans of their products, again, feebly arguing that all we need to do is recycle. Activists in the rabble groaned when an industry representative championed a new plastic bottle made out of plant-based material as progress. Leave it up to the plastic industry to turn organic material into something that doesn’t biodegrade.

Activism starts at home. Refusing single-use plastics, opting instead for the coffee cup or stainless steel bottle, is a big step. Then it’s time to start engaging the businesses you frequent and ask them a simple question, “What are you doing to reduce your plastic footprint?”

Next up in the series, we’ll talk about how much plastic we all use, where it hides, and how to avoid it.

Image: Micro-fragments of plastic the beach of St. Helena, a very remote island in The South Atlantic. Credit: Stiv Wilson