Almost exactly a year ago I did made a video in which I outlined the problem we face in the oceans from plastic pollution, the problems with ocean cleanup efforts, and the actual solutions we need to put in place to eliminate our actions. I regret to inform you that in the 12 months since then we have not resolved the issue. In fact, the Ocean Cleanup project just made another PR foray in September They made an animation what it would look like if their project actually worked and used it to solicit more donations, which apparently led to it its biggest proponents to believe that this meant it actually worked.
I mention this because of some recent relevant studies: First, Biologists in Great Britain and Finland have found this out At least one mechanical plastic collector is responsible for killing an impressive amount of oceanic life forms. This is something researchers have been proclaiming even before Ocean Cleanup built any of their devices, so it’s not exactly surprising, but it’s always nice to have hard data. In this case, the scientists examined a seebina similar but slightly different project to Ocean Cleanup that asked the important question, “If we have so much garbage in the ocean, why don’t we throw in some trash cans and see if that helps?”
In reality, the Seabin floats in a harbor or marina and is hooked up to shore power that allows a pump to force water through a filter that catches dirt. And it catches some litter, the biologists observed in this new article: On average, it removed “58 pieces of litter per day,” which they said were mostly “plastic pellets, Styrofoam balls, and plastic fragments.” Big! Unfortunately they also have 13 marine organisms a day every day which was things like eels, crabs and shrimp. Half of these organisms died in the Seabin and the other half were released. This is the worst news a body of research results that “fish don’t survive discard processes well” due to temperature changes, injuries that we can’t necessarily see, and even just making them easier prey for birds and marine life that hunt near the surface.
These researchers concluded that Seabin and similar technologies are less efficient AND more likely to kill organisms compared to manual methods of removing plastic from water (like using nets from pontoons).
I’ve tried to make that last sentence as simple and easy to understand as possible – these devices do MORE DAMAGE and LESS GOOD than existing methods – but I know for sure there will still be people in the comments who say “at least good they do SOMETHING!” Because, at the end of the day, we have a large population of people who lack critical thinking and want to believe firmly that no matter how bad things get, technology will save us. But this study, along with pretty much every other third-party evaluation of systems like this, shows that won’t be the case.
Which brings me to the next study: instead of throwing away all that plastic and letting it end up in our oceans, why don’t we recycle it? Spring. That’s something I’ve long been skeptical about – not recycling in general, because scientists have done a pretty good job of perfecting the recycling of things like aluminum cans. But specifically recycling plastic. It’s been no secret among experts, at least for the last 20 years since I took an environmental science course, and probably longer, that plastic is very, very difficult to recycle. So this new report would only be truly groundbreaking if found otherwise, but heck, it gives me an opportunity to point out something that many people still don’t understand.
First, let me point out that this paper is from Greenpeace. They are a clearly biased environmental justice organization that has not always necessarily been on the side of good science. For example, I disagree with her anti-nuclear stance that she has included Scaremongering about radioactive pigeons at a UK nuclear site. They are also against GMOs, claiming that it causes health problems for which there is no solid scientific evidence.
On the other hand, I think they have done important work in stopping commercial whaling and pushing for more renewable energy.
Overall, they’re mixed, so we should take any of their comments with a pinch of salt. But again, what they’re reporting in this case just isn’t news: most of the plastic we use every day isn’t recycled, and not just because we don’t throw it in the right bins. And it’s not even because the garbage collectors don’t keep those bins separate and take them to the right place for disposal! Most of the plastic waste you put into your recycling goes to a recycling facility, where hopefully 5% of it will actually be recycled. The rest ends up in a landfill.
You see, the main issue here is that “plastic” encompasses many different materials, since it’s found in everything from soda bottles to carpet to my glasses. That’s why experts break plastics divided into 7 categories, and that’s why when you check your trash, you can see a number that tells you what kind of plastic trash you have: For example, an empty jar of peanut butter — I think that’s just a jar — is in Category 1, for polyethylene Terephthalate or “PET”. A detergent bottle is likely to be Category 2 High Density Polyethylene or “HDPE”.
And those are the only two categories of plastic that most recycling facilities even accept. So no teethers (category 3, PVC or vinyl), no bubble wrap or grocery bags (category 4, low-density polyethylene), no straws and bottle caps (category 5, polypropylene), no styrofoam (category 6…styrofoam), and not my glasses ( Category 7, “Other”).
I should point out that many recycling facilities say they take Category 5 items like straws, but end up recycling less than 5% of the items and sending the rest to a landfill. They used to sell them to other countries, but other countries have caught on and we can’t do that anymore. Ah great.
Even the best case of Category 1 plastics is difficult to recycle because there are things in this category that unlike paper or metals cannot be combined with other plastics of the same category for recycling. As Greenpeace rightly states:
“Different plastics have different melting points, dyes and colorants. Various types of chemical additives give plastics specific properties, such as B. flexibility or rigidity. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles are made by blow molding and cannot be recycled with PET#1 cups, bowls or clamshells made by thermoforming and made from a different PET#1 material.101 Green PET#1 -bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles.”
When you combine this with the fact that the process used to recycle plastic is extremely inefficient (not to mention the potential danger to the environment), it’s no surprise that even in the MOST RECYCLABLE PET CATEGORY, they’ve always been #1 still only about 20% of plastic is recycled into something that can be reused.
So what is a baby environmentalist supposed to do these days? Cut out the middleman and just start shoving plastic bottles down the dolphins’ blowholes? Let’s not get dramatic now. Here’s the rest of that depressing PET1 snippet from Greenpeace:
“To combat this problem, all beverage companies operating in Japan have voluntarily used only clear PET #1 since 1992103, and South Korea banned colored PET #1 in 2020.” Ah! On the one hand an industry that has actually monitored itself and on the other hand a country that has enforced a standard. That must be nice! At the moment we don’t have either.
So yeah, obviously I’m taking that on Election Day here in the US, and you already know what I fall for in all of this: Vote against every Republican you can. The majority of them want fascism badly and they are coming for your rights. But if you get the chance try to vote for someone who is progressive and supports things like the Green New Deal! Someone who wants to hold accountable the fossil fuel and beverage industries who have promised to increase production of single-use plastics for their own profit. As I said when I spoke about Ocean Cleanup, it’s not enough to save the lifeboat before we plug the hole. And in this case, I’m not ONLY referring to the amount of garbage entering our waterways — I’m talking about the amount of garbage we buy and the amount that companies like Coca Cola and Pepsico produce. So: if you have the opportunity to get a progressive rep, choose it, and if you have the opportunity to recycle or choose a material other than plastic, do that too! And don’t get too stressed if you still don’t know if your plastic bags belong in the recycling bin or in the landfill. Probably nobody else knows either.