Captain Charlie Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Institute, recently published an Op-Ed article in the New York Times on plastics pollution in the ocean. Kudos to Captain Moore for increasing visibility around this important issue.
According to the 2014 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, 20-40 billion pounds of plastic waste end up in the world’s oceans every year. Once in the ocean, traditional plastic does not go away. It doesn’t biodegrade. It does break down over time through the combined effects of wave action and sunlight, indirectly becoming a source of fine plastic particles that linger and float in the ocean. These “microplastics” or “plastic microbeads” can act as carriers for chemicals and other pollutants that may enter into the food chain upon ingestion by marine organisms.
There are also direct sources of microplastic particles that end up in the oceans after their intentional use in personal care products such as toothpaste and skin care products and industrial applications such as adhesives and inks. Single-use personal care products are washed away after use and their non-degradable ingredients, from microplastic powders & water soluble plastic additives to synthetic wax ingredients, pass through waste treatment facilities. These same ingredients in industrial applications are not often capable of being recycled effectively. Ultimately much of these man-made microplastic ingredients end up accumulating in the oceans and lakes.
By far the largest source of plastic ending up in the oceans according to the UNEP study, and indirectly also the largest source of microplastic particles, is from land-based sources of plastic litter and lost commercial fishing gear. Tens of billions of pounds of plastic litter wind up in the oceans every year compared to the tens of millions of pounds global market for intentional man-made, non-biodegradable microplastics used in consumer and industrial applications.
The findings from this UNEP study target the largest sources of pollution and appropriately suggest reinforcing programs to tackle litter and improve recycling and reuse of plastics materials. Replacement of synthetic, non-biodegradable man-made microplastic beads with natural, biodegradable materials or elimination altogether is also recommended and well within the ability of suppliers to influence. Many brands have responded leading the way to develop products containing alternative natural and biodegradable micropowder materials. Legislation requiring alternatives is also gaining momentum as consumer sentiment turns.
Our solution: polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) marine degradable, renewable micropowders. Metabolix PHA biopolymers are unique in that they perform as well as synthetic, non-biodegradable microplastic powders, but biodegrade rapidly in marine and freshwater environments (within a couple of weeks) where microbial activity is present. These products are certified to meet ASTM D7081 standards for marine biodegradability.
UNEP’s report aimed to assess the overall impact of plastic pollution by defining a common monetary basis or ‘natural cost’ to express the scale of environmental damage, commercial fishing and tourism losses, and the cleanup burden on society. The 2014 report calculated the annual ‘natural cost” for plastic pollution specific to marine ecosystems at US$13 billion. Clearly, any plastic that ends up deliberately or inadvertently in our
marine environment has a very high natural cleanup cost associated with it that is not reflected in the price of these plastic products today.