For the last few years, the plastic crisis is making news headlines around the world. The plastic problem in the oceans and seas is so severe that the United Nations called it a ‘planetary crisis’. The chief of the Oceans division, Lisa Svensson said that plastics – in all its types and forms – are ruining marine ecosystems around the world.
Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic waste enters the oceans. That means that a total of 8 million (metric) tons a year litter the seafloor and float on the surface in vast plastic patches, poisoning seabirds and other marine life. It has been estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.
Single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery, straws and cotton buds will be banned in the EU under plans provisionally agreed between the European Parliament and Council on 19 December 2018 (On-going EU legislative procedure to watch out in the coming weeks).
Frédérique Ries, MEP (ALDE, BE) : “Europe now has a legislative model to defend and promote at international level, given the global nature of the issue of marine pollution involving plastics. This is essential for the planet and this is what millions of concerned Europeans are asking us to do.”
What is the precise danger of microplastics in the (deep) ocean?
Plastic pollution has even reached the deep seas. Linda Amaral-Zettler, senior scientist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), investigates the interplay between microplastics (plastic particles smaller than 5 mm) and micro-organisms like bacteria and (micro)algae.
Linda Amaral-Zettler, senior scientist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) : “The biggest issue is the creation of a new habitat where there was none before. The open ocean gyres are the equivalent of deserts (on the nutrient level), so adding a substrate with a nice nutrient-rich biofilm changes this deeply. We do not understand what the domino effect will be. In the deep sea, microplastics become a food source for organisms large enough to ingest it. And so the same issues regarding microplastics biomagnifying up the food chain apply here as elsewhere in the water column.”
In research funded by the European Research Council’s (ERC) CACH project, Professor Laura Robinson from Bristol’s School of Earth Science discovered that even organisms and animals living on the sea floor are ingesting microplastics.
Laura Robinson from Bristol’s School of Earth Science : “The result astonished me and is a real reminder that plastic pollution has truly reached the ends of the Earth.”
The ‘missing plastic problem’
Meanwhile, scientists also trying to solve the so-called ‘missing plastic problem’. In the EU-funded TOPIOS (“Tracking Of Plastic In Our Seas”) project, they are creating state-of-the-art hydrodynamic ocean models able to track the movement of plastic through the ocean.
Professor Erik van Sebille (Utrecht University) : “We know that the plastic floating on the surface of the ocean represents only a very small percentage of the total amount of plastic going in to the oceans every year. This means that as much as 99 % of ocean plastic is missing: we don’t know exactly where it is or what damage it is doing.”
Cleaning up is not enough – reducing the use of plastics is necessary
In September, media from around the world zoomed in on the launch of the Dutch Ocean Cleanup initiative, a floating system that extracts plastic from a giant garbage patch in the Pacific. Although the approach has its merits, it also raises questions. Shouldn’t we stop the pollution at where it originates? And can a system that only cleans up floating, large chunks of plastic really make a difference?
Indeed, Europe encourages its Member States to reduce the use of plastics for which no alternative exists, by at least 25% by 2025, and to stimulate the collection and recycling beverage packaging severely.
Using blockchain and the “plastic bank”
Several initiatives that focus on the origin of the plastic pollution have seen the light over the past years. One in particular is really making a difference – instead of only making people more aware of the problem. In May 2013, Canadian entrepreneur David Katz founded The Plastic Bank, a startup that aims to tackle the plastic crisis with a combination of two components: individual financial incentives, and modern technology.
David Katz, founder of The Plastic Bank : “Much of the plastic originates in underdeveloped countries with minimal waste management infrastructure, where citizens often survive on less than a dollar a day. I realized we had to challenge our perception of plastic, and make it too valuable to simply throw it away into a river or stream.”
The Plastic Bank encourages citizens of poor countries like Haiti and the Philippines to collect plastic waste and deliver it to local processing centers, exploited by the Canadian firm. In return, these people earn life-changing rewards like schooling for their children, food or phone top-ups. The collected plastic is grinded into pellets and sold back to manufacturers to re-use as an ethically-sourced raw material.
The firm uses a blockchain system to ensure for people in underdeveloped countries to safely earn and spend digital tokens – instead of relying a dubious cash-based system. The inherent transparency of blockchain technology is also an important aspect to convince some of the largest companies and corporations in the world to co-operate with The Plastic Bank. ‘When these firms buy and recycle plastic from us, they expect that it is helping to stop ocean pollution and improving lives’, says Katz. ‘Thanks to our blockchain technology they know that their investment is going where it needs to go.’
Companies in Europe that already collaborate with The Plastic Bank include M&S (a multinational British retailer), Shell, Henkel and IBM.
• Interview with Erik van Sebille – Busting the myths about ocean plastic (audio interview)
• Parliament and Council agree drastic cuts to plastic pollution of environment
• About the Plastic Bank
• Which microorganisms feed on plastic?
• Initial statement by the European Commission’s group of chief scientific advisors a scientific perspective on microplastic pollution and its impacts
• EPRS: Single-use plastics and fishing gear: Reducing marine litter
• EU Project : VORTEX
• EU Project : TOPIOS
• A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Linda Amaral-Zettler about plastic pollution
• EU Project : CACH