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 September 29, 2009
Fish and Paint Chips Part II: The Politics of Ocean Trash

 When it comes to reducing garbage in the world’s oceans, the political angle is just as important as the scientific, to judge by industry’s behavior. On Aug. 18, Seattle voters passed by a 53-47 margin a referendum to overturn a 20-cent fee approved last year by the city council for using plastic bags at supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores.  

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other public information, the referendum was backed primarily by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the plastics industry trade association, and the 7-11 chain of convenience stores. The ACC made local headlines with its all-out summer media blitz to promote the referendum, ultimately spending $1.4 million before the vote was held. In comparison, the Seattle Green Bag Campaign to support the fee raised less than $100,000.

In a press release trumpeting its victory, the ACC argued that whatever its environmental implications, plastic is good for the economy. The release repeated a common industry argument: recycling, not outright reduction, should be the centerpiece of any plastics policy. "[R]ecycling legislation in New York, California, Rhode Island, Delaware and cities across the country is expected to increase significantly the amount of plastic bags and wraps that are turned into new consumer products, such as durable decking, fencing, railings, shopping carts and new bags," it stated.

Indeed, the industry has long argued that if consumers recycle and reuse enough plastic, less of it enters the waste stream, so there is little need to rethink manufacturing strategies. The ACC’s PlasticBagFacts.org Web site repeats the argument: "Banning recyclable plastic bags will not solve the litter problem or reduce the amount of waste in our sewers and landfills. Litter must be addressed directly by targeting behavior and increasing access to recycling bins and waste receptacles."

Nowhere at the "Taxes And Bans Don’t Work" link is there a discussion of cutting unneeded plastic production in the first place. Nor is plastic the only interested party. Considering the seafood industry’s current scope - $55 billion a year, according to the 2009 International Association of Culinary Professionals award-winning book Bottomfeeder - it’s hard to imagine today’s legion of commercial fishing outfits, seafood restaurant chains and other players quietly giving up and going home, even if upcoming studies establish a link from seaborne toxics to humans.

To take just one example, while the Red Lobster franchise is hardly the source of the problem, it has done little to educate consumers: the restaurant’s Web site has a link to a "Seafood & Health" page, but it consists only of recipe recommendations and a nutrition calculator designed to tout the benefits of fatty acids and other features of a seafood diet.

One of the problems with any political effort to reduce waste is that science, unlike campaign money, is often not directed at a specific outcome. Marcus Eriksen of the Algalita Foundation said that when it comes to studying the world’s pollution gyres, even groups that agree about the outlines of the problem often don’t see eye to eye on how to handle or study it. "When any issue becomes pop science, as ocean pollution is now, you get competition to be the go-to expert on the issue," he said, pointing to his own group, NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego as only the biggest of many figures in the field. But that friendly rivalry, he said, shouldn’t stand in the way of the greater good: "I’d love to see others doing more trawls, getting more data. [NOAA and Scripps] have only gone to the same gyre we have for the last 10 years" - the one located in the North Pacific - "and the question now is, what’s the global picture?" Without that kind of picture, it will be difficult to convince other governments, whether local or national, that their communities are contributing to the problem.

The ACC, for its part, argues that when it comes to tackling solid waste, plastic is the wrong focus. "Clearly, if you ban a plastic product, you’re going to have less of that plastic product," said Keith Christman, senior director of market advocacy for the ACC’s Plastics Division. "That’s not really the question. The question is whether you have less total waste." He suggested that localized bag bans or fees have no effect on pollution because the constant demand for bags means that consumers will find them one way or another.

He pointed to an April 2008 garbage audit performed by a contractor for the city of San Francisco, where non-compostable plastic checkout bags have been banned at most stores since late 2007, that found retail bags as a percentage of total street litter had not decreased over the following twelve months. (Litter had, however, decreased overall by 17 percent.) He dismissed as ineffective Ireland’s 15 euro-cent bag fee, implemented in 2002, which a February 21, 2007, Reuters article said had reduced plastic bag litter by 95 percent. The article quoted environment minister Dick Roche as saying that the number of bags used by shoppers dropped from 328 per person before the fee to "as low 21 per head each year," largely because shoppers had switched to reusable bags.

In broad terms, Christman’s message was consistent: "Litter is a problem bigger than any one entity." He stressed ACC’s partnerships with retail stores to implement voluntary recycling measures under the aegis of its Keep America Beautiful program, and correctly pointed out that environmental impact studies suggest paper bags, because of their carbon dioxide implications, are not always a sound alternative to plastic. (Plastic "consumes 40 to 70 percent less energy to manufacture, generates 80 percent less solid waste, and produces 60 percent fewer atmospheric emissions," according to the newest edition of the consumer product magazine Utne Reader.)

However, canvas and even polyester bags, which are increasing in popularity, are much less harmful over time than paper or plastic, a point studiously ignored by a late 2007 report commissioned by the ACC’s Progressive Bag Alliance titled Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags, which includes a telling caveat: "This study did not examine the impacts associated with reusable cloth bags, so no comparison was made between the cloth bags and single-use polyethylene plastic bags. In other studies, however, cloth bags were shown to reduce environmental impacts if consumers can be convinced to switch."

Another problem with ACC’s approach, according to Heather Trim, urban bays and toxics program manager for People for Puget Sound, an ecology group that supported the Seattle bag fee, is that not all recycling is equal. When it comes to American plastic, "the bulk of the bags recycled are baled up and sent to Asian countries and made into lower-grade plastics that we buy again, or they’re burned for fuel," she said. Unfortunately, when plastic is burned, its polymer chain becomes shorter, which means that any second-generation recycled plastic product will be lower quality than its predecessor, whereas "when you have a glass jar or metal can, you can break it down and remake the exact same product."

Unable to dispute plastic’s negative environmental impact, she said, ACC focused not on the science at issue but on the bag fee being the wrong mechanism for reform. Early in the petition campaign, some Seattle residents received phone calls warning voters that the law didn’t include bags at Wal-Mart - calls sponsored by savvy anti-fee campaigners aware of the chain store’s unpopular status in the progressive, union-friendly town. The irony, Trim said, is that some people voted against the law because it "didn’t go far enough," despite the fact that there are no Wal-Marts in Seattle.

Plastic is simply "the wrong substance for throwaway products. It’s perhaps the most ubiquitous pollutant in the ocean today, and it’s not just bottles and bags. It’s straws and cigarette pack wrappers" - in total, a whole host of items that most people never think about twice.

Bags are, of course, only part of the problem. Looking at the bigger picture, Eriksen of Algalita holds little hope that plastic-producing companies will change their market behavior without a push. "The plastic industry has a lot to lose if people stop using plastic throwaway bags. To convince the industry to stop making throwaways is a losing battle," he said, suggesting that a per-pound or per-product "recovery value" for plastic items might be a better solution, such as a one-dollar reward for any returned cell phone.

"If Nokia had to take back every cell phone, I guarantee you they wouldn’t make a new model every three months, and they wouldn’t have a different charger for every model," he said, adding that regardless of the company or its market niche, plastic is simply "the wrong substance for throwaway products. It’s perhaps the most ubiquitous pollutant in the ocean today, and it’s not just bottles and bags. It’s straws and cigarette pack wrappers" - in total, a whole host of items that most people never think about twice.

One effort to change the prevalent throwaway-and-forget mentality comes in the form of an initiative at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), which has begun focusing on a manageable problem with a manageable solution: redesigning crab traps. It is not the sort of issue that prompts heated debates or million-dollar ad campaigns, which may help explain its success, and in this case that means more economic benefits to go around. According to the Web site for VIMS’ marine debris location and removal project, derelict crab traps "can continue to capture and kill animals for several years depending upon salinity and wave climate.

Removal of marine debris, particularly derelict pots, can result in a natural resource and economic benefit if conducted in a structured and environmentally sensitive manner." To that end, the Institute has formulated traps with better-placed escape hatches, slowly degrading walls and other features that have been found to give smaller animals a much greater chance of escape and survival. Efforts to increase adoption in the crabbing industry, especially in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, are underway.

Holly Bamford of NOAA - whose marine debris program has only six employees in the Washington, D.C., headquarters office, complemented by another two on the West Coast and two in Hawaii - praised the Institute’s work, adding that VIMS "has been a great partner" in ocean cleanup efforts. "A lot of [research] focus has been on the gear," such as old traps, "because that’s been a big problem" in terms of unintentional killings, she said.

But the success of VIMS’ research only highlights the bigger government shortfall when it comes to addressing sea life mortality and ocean pollution, especially in the gyres. Because her program received only $4 million this fiscal year despite being authorized $10 million in its founding legislation, she said, "a lot of people are now cobbling together whatever they can," including civilians donating ship time for government research. Partners like VIMS, which focuses on the Virginia and Maryland coastlines, can only pick up so much of the slack when the gyres are truly a global phenomenon.

As far as the question of researching the gyres’ potential human health impacts, there is no national political story to report for the simple reason that no one in Congress has taken it up. In 2005, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including the recently ousted Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), joined to pass the bill that created Bamford’s program. Since that vote succeeded, lawmakers’ attention seems to have waned. While Bamford pointed to a few champions of ocean cleanup, such as Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), no one in the House or Senate has expressed interest in expanding the program - or creating a new one - to better assess the gyres’ potential human health risks. Bamford, like her non-profit partners and colleagues, is making do with what she has available.

A turtle caught in a ghost net. These nets are left behind or lost by fishermen and can be nearly invisible to marine life.Photo by: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Aside from not wanting to rock the proverbial boat, it seems clear why politicians may want to stay away from the issue: there’s no good way to fix it. Because of the small size of most gyre debris, and because it is mostly suspended in the water column below the surface, it would take high-intensity trawling with large nets all over the world, possibly for years, before most of the garbage was removed. Such a procedure would likely kill its own share of sea turtles, manta rays and other marine species even as it sought to mitigate the garbage’s impact.

What is left now is for researchers to establish whether the plastic and other waste already known to infest the world’s oceans poses a health risk to humans, and if so on what scale. The garbage itself is likely there to stay. The best and most realistic response now may be to stop contributing further to the problem, and to demand to know more about what we eat.

This article was originally published by the Public Education Center (PEC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) charitable organization staffed by award-winning investigative reporters whose mission is to investigate previously overlooked news stories about significant issues-chief among them the environment and national security-and bring them to the attention of national and international audiences. It is reproduced in GLOBE-Net as per the editorial policy of the publisher. 

Source: DC Source