Surrounded by Plastic

27 12 2010

Surrounded by Plastic

The state of our ocean today is a perfect example of tragedy of the commons. We all use and take from the sea, but the majority of it is not “owned” or governed by any one country, much like the air we breathe, having no borders. As groups like Plastiki and Project Kaisei draw attention to the plight of the ocean, and the amount of waste in the North Pacific Gyre, the world is becoming shocked to know that this has all happened under our watch, and that it snuck under the radar to get to the scale it is today. This is because of the size, extent and relative underuse of the sea by the general population. Without using or experiencing something (like the ocean), there is little appreciation for it, frame of reference to know what to compare to, and therefore, thought or knowledge of how to fix it.

Information about the extent of the amount of plastic in the ocean is only just becoming widely known, but the average citizen has little personal affiliation with such an issue. This is the case even though many people seek the beach for their holidays, or continue to eat seafood not knowing exactly the toxins that it might contain. The boating community can play a large ambassadorial role in helping to educate the general public about what we are doing to our planet. The ocean is a huge place, yet our impact can be readily seen, and it is merely a derivative of the problems we are creating on land. This means that we have really overstretched the limits if “dilution” of the problem does not even work (not that it ever should have, but now that the presence of plastic in our waters is so apparent, dilution can no longer hide the problem).

Today the ocean is crying for a variety of reasons, plastic pollution being one of them, and one that is solvable. Acidification is a tough one to overcome, but we can readily think about the materials we use in our daily lives and how they can be used in better ways, redesigned, or re-purposed into something truly remarkable. The main issue with our plastic waste problem is single-use items, and our throw-away mentality. The growth in consumption has well outpaced our ability to capture all of this material back into the waste stream for recycling or other uses. Bottles are not the only material presenting us with challenges and new opportunities as they rapidly proliferate, but they are often the most widely seen, along with plastic bags. In the end, however, all plastic needs to be handled in a better way, and thought of as a resource, not as a waste product. Roughly 90% of the plastic in the world today does not get recycled, and that is a big opportunity for entrepreneurs to address. Most plastic today is a solidified petroleum product after all.

The challenge we face today is how to create a “bounty”, or a value to the many types of waste that are being created from our growing economies. Most of this material has value to it, if aggregated in the proper way so that economies of scale can kick in and provide cost effective re-processing potential. As soon as there is value to something that now is worth nothing, people will find ways to collect and capture it for economic gain. How can we speed up this process on a global scale? Many times the recycling technology may exist, but too often governments do not support or assist with the infrastructure needed for this new feedstock. The environment never gets improved upon in the scale it needs with purely volunteer efforts. Governments and companies will need to give incentives, and penalties, in order to shift the goal posts so that people can begin to treat waste materials in new ways. This will bring about a myriad of new technologies, innovations, jobs and the creativity that much of the world’s countries strive for, yet they simply are not putting the basic frameworks in place to allow this to happen.

Our economy is a 100% subsidiary of the ecology, yet until now, we have been raping and pillaging the environment as if there is an endless supply to go around. This is particularly the case with the oceans, with the lack of an ability to fully govern what gets taken from its waters. We can now see that this “freedom to exploit” is not endless, as our atmosphere is choking on our growing outputs, and our sea is suffocating due to the long lasting materials we are depositing to its shores, and vice versa. The state of the ocean today should be the tipping point that wakes us up from the trance of consumption that we haven lulled into complacency with, and which sends us into a new era of material science, bio and ocean degradability, and new re-use technologies.

We all need to help, as there is no easy single solution. Governments can grab the opportunity for the benefit of growth and job creation, and companies can lead the way with their consumers and employees, really showing that they care about their surroundings and the markets they serve to. The boating community can help by pushing for recycling at ports, making sure food services use less plastic or alternative materials, and that “black spots” in normally pristine areas are reported.

Groups like Project Kaisei and Plastiki have been an excellent focal point for the world’s audience to learn more about the ocean and its plights. Their expeditions compliment one another, as Plastiki helped to raise awareness, and Project Kaisei is bringing together a collaborative team of science, technology, innovation, policy and education. We are already studying and testing ways in which we can begin to clean some of what we have put into the water over the years, while at the same time driving inspiration for prevention and opportunities that can be sustainable for the long run. We all have heard of Gen X and Gen Y, now we need to all work together to make sure there is no Generation Zero.

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