The Spin of Truth

Ocean Gyres

The sun comes up every morning. If it ever ceases to, we won’t know, we will not have survived that loss. Few concepts in our modern lives are quite so certain. Without a doubt, truth is in the service of an agenda. Data is used to support whatever perspective is desirable. Even the most diligent researcher or professor of higher learning comes into their role with some bias. It is human nature.

Recently, an article in Plastics News caught my attention – “Study: 100 times less plastic than expected polluting ocean surface”. I have long been aware that there are islands of refuse in the ocean. These are not islands as would be properly termed that. Rather, they are gyres, which is a term in oceanography for a ringlike system of ocean currents rotating clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. Five of these are said to have the bulk of the plastic, with the North Pacific “garbage patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex” said to contain 33% of the total – due to its size and to its proximity to the sea coasts of East Asia, where one-third of the world’s coastal populations are located. For a novel experience – visit “A Journey to the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” which follows the journey of a plastic bag from a California city to the ocean with it’s final destination of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”.

Journey into the  Pacific Garbage Patch

Journey into the
Pacific Garbage Patch

I believe that Plastics News seeks to provide quality journalism but it is a plastics professional’s trade journal and it is biased in favor of being supportive of that industry. So this article’s headline was based upon a scientific estimate of how much plastic would be found – before – a study conducted by universities in Australia, Saudi Arabia and Spain working together did find that plastic debris contaminating the ocean was widespread enough to be found in 88% of the over 3,000 water samples taken at 141 different locations.

It seems that the researchers found “an important gap in the size distribution of floating plastic debris as well as a global surface load of plastic well below that expected from production and input rates”. They have determined that an “unknown mechanism” is removing smaller particles at a faster rate than larger particles. The researchers were surprised that the amount of plastic on the surface was not proportionate to the rapid increase in plastic production during recent decades. They were surprised to find that “surface plastic concentration in fixed ocean regions show no significant increasing trend since the 1980s, despite an increase in production and disposal.”

As to theories regarding the effect, they did not believe that more was washing ashore but that “there could be mechanisms to accelerate the breakdown into smaller particles, it could be devoured by marine animals or attach to objects like barnacles, a process called biofouling”. The researchers do feel that “because plastic inputs into the ocean will probably continue, and even increase, resolving the ultimate pathways and fate of these debris is a matter of urgency”.

The headline certainly grabs the attention but the article does not truly relieve concerns about plastic particles concentrating in the ocean. In fact, not long after I read that article, another one that seems to perhaps state the circumstances a bit more strongly than the Plastics News reporting, was printed in the NY Times – “Choking the Oceans With Plastic”. The author, Charles J Moore, is a captain in the US merchant marine and the found of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Institute in Long Beach, CA.

A less favorable (to the industry) perspective, than the article in Plastics News, was found in a blog posted at Algalita Marine’s website – “Disappearing ocean plastics is nothing to celebrate”, citing the exact same research study source. That blog notes that “land-based sources are responsible for the lion’s share of plastic waste entering the oceans: littering, wind-blown trash escaping from trash cans and landfills, and storm drain runoff when the capacity of water treatment plants is exceeded”. I was already aware of the issue of “spherical plastic microbeads, no more than a half millimeter, that are manufactured into skin care products and designed to be washed down the drain but escape water treatment plants not equipped to capture them”. There have been movements to counter that usage (want to know more ? – see Information Resources at the bottom of this blog). One I had not thought of was plastic microfibers released due to laundering polyester fabrics. Our family does tend to choose 100% Cotton as much as possible (yes, I do read labels obsessively !!).

ocean-plastic

The Algalita blog, referencing the same study as Plastic News, notes that scientists theorize that “zooplankton-eating fish likely account for the loss in surface microplastics. The missing microplastics are the same size as zooplankton, thus easily mistaken for food. Furthermore, zooplankton eaters that live deep in the ocean rise to the surface at night to feed. This explanation is supported by fact that plastic debris found in the stomachs of the fish that live off zooplankton are the same size as the missing surface debris, and the same size plastics are also commonly found in the stomachs of larger fish that feed on the plankton eaters”. This is not actually reassuring news for those eating fish as a healthier food choice. I do recommended that those most interested read the entire Algalita blog (see Information Resources at the bottom of this blog).

Algalita also notes – “In recent decades, disturbing autopsy images have surfaced in larger creatures – like whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and seabirds – illustrating stomach/intestinal blockage or perforation from ingesting often recognizable plastic items such as plastic bags, fishing line and bottle caps.” – which brings me to my final note for this blog – after long efforts, mostly fended off by the industry which I have been following for some time in Plastics News, Calfornia finally managed to pass a bag ban (though not yet signed by the Governor into law). This would make it the first state level ban in the United States once signed.

Plastic Bags on Beach

Plastic Bags on Beach

“Single-use plastic bags not only litter our beaches, but also our mountains, our deserts, and our rivers, streams and lakes,” said state Senator Alex Padilla, who sponsored the bill. The measure will also “provide money to local plastic bag companies to retool to make heavier, multiple-use bags that customers could buy”. We are the proud owners of quite a few, durable, bags purchased from Whole Foods Markets over the years. In California, there has been a particular concern that the bags, when swept out to sea, could harm ocean life.

Good for him sticking with it. It hasn’t been easy. After the defeat of his earlier bill in part due to opposition from plastic bag makers, Padilla won the support for this measure of some California-based bag makers by including the funding for retooling. However, the backlash has been fierce in recent months, as out-of-state manufacturers campaigned heavily against the bill, even going so far as producing television advertisements targeting Padilla personally, as he campaigns for secretary of state.

~ Information Resources

“Study: 100 times less plastic than expected polluting ocean surface” by Steve Toloken posted 07/23/14 in Plastics News – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20140723/NEWS/140729965/study-100-times-less-plastic-than-expected-polluting-ocean-surface

“A Journey to the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – http://motleynews.net/2012/02/09/a-journey-to-the-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch/

“Choking the Oceans With Plastic” by Charles J Moore posted 8/25/14 at NY Times.com – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/opinion/choking-the-oceans-with-plastic.html

“Disappearing ocean plastics is nothing to celebrate” posted in the Algalita Marine Research Blog – http://www.algalita.org/blog/?p=4257

International Campaign Against Microbeads In Cosmetics – http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/

“California Plastic Bag Ban Would Be First Of Its Kind In The Nation” by Aaron Mendelson posted 8/30/2014 in the Huffington Post “Green” – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/30/california-plastic-bag-ban_n_5740332.html

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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2 Comments on “The Spin of Truth”

  1. Several cities in Oregon have a plastic-bag ban for certain stores already (it doesn’t apply to locally-owned businesses below a certain square footage, I believe,) and when I worked in retail I had a customer tell me that paper bags take more energy to make and to recycle than plastic. Time to switch to fully biodegradable bags, I guess! (Maybe even locally produced, with native plant seeds embedded into the material a la Cradle to Cradle?)

    • debyemm says:

      Thanks for commenting. I think the difference for California is simply being state-wide (if it fully passes). Your customer’s comment reminds me of the very old paper or plastic argument. Certainly, paper takes down trees (unless it is recycled paper of course !!). Plastics are also recyclable, including grocery store bags. However, the issue really isn’t energy or recyclability. The issue really is littering. If all plastic bags were either disposed of responsibly, even if that means a landfill, or recycled – better of course – there would be no need for a bag ban. I do like your idea of biodegradable bags with native plant seeds embedded. Awesome. And biodegradable plastics exist. They are controversial too – ironically because of recycling and their possible impact on those systems.


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