That Snap Of Fresh Plastic In Your Seafood

Eight million tons enter the ocean each year

Of the estimated 9 billion tons of plastic generated since 1950, some 6.3 billion tons exist in the form of plastic waste, a volume that has  overwhelmed our waste management and infrastructure capabilities, with a result of about 8 million tons of plastic waste entering the oceans every year.

These grim statistics were relayed to an audience at the first Hamptons Institute discussion of 2018, held on Aug. 6 at Guild Hall in East Hampton. The majority of the plastic waste in the oceans, said Barbara Hendrie, the newly appointed regional director for the United Nations Environment North America Office, is “the plastic that we use for 15 minutes and then throw away.” Water bottles and single-use bags “are the things that have value for 10, 15 minutes,” she said. “That’s why they stay in the environment, because they don’t have another value beyond that.” 

Media reports in recent months include an account of a dead sperm whale that washed ashore in Spain, 64 pounds of mostly plastic, but also ropes, pieces of net, and other debris, lodged in its stomach; a rare sea turtle that starved to death shortly after it washed up on a beach in Thailand, its stomach clogged by pieces of plastic waste and rubber bands, and a pilot whale stranded on a beach near the Thai-Malay border, 80 plastic bags in its stomach. 

But the problem is not just large items made of plastic, said Tierney Thys, a biologist and documentary filmmaker for National Geographic Explorer and research associate at the California Academy of Sciences. “The pieces break down into microplastics,” Ms. Thys said, and do more than impede digestion. As it breaks down, plastic can release its additives, including bisphenol A, “known endocrine disrupters, which can affect your hormone system, your metabolism, your fertility, and immune responses,” she said. “They also can attract and adhere persistent organic pollutants — PCBs and DDT. When an animal ingests those, all the way down to the tiniest little zooplankton, they’re not only getting physical obstruction, but a poison-packed pill as well that can then pervade the system.”

It gets worse. Lovers of seafood “are probably eating about 11,000 particles of plastic every single year,” said Dune Ives, the director of the Lonely Whale, which leads ocean conservation initiatives to combat environmental degradation and species decline. Every sample of sea salt tested has shown plastic microfibers, she said, and globally, 83 percent of tap water and 94 percent of bottled water has plastic microfibers. “We’re just starting to learn what the health effects are of plastic waste in our ocean, in our marine ecosystem,” she said. “To animals, it’s becoming more and more clear, but to humans, we’re only starting to better understand how much plastic is showing up in some of the things we eat and drink.” 

And even worse: “The projection is that plastic production will double in 20 years and quadruple by 2050,” Ms. Hendrie told the panel’s moderator, the actor Alec Baldwin. 

Only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled, Ms. Hendrie said, and around 12 percent incinerated. The rest goes into landfills or is dumped as litter in coastal areas or rivers. “They all find their way into the ocean environment,” she said. To address the problem, the U.N.’s environment program is focusing its efforts on single-use disposable plastics, like packaging, bags, and straws. 

Governments and individuals can take action to reduce the scourge of plastic waste, the panelists said, but corporations have a responsibility for the life cycle of their products. “You can make yourself known with the corporations you care about,” Ms. Ives said, and those holding portfolios invested in fast foods and consumer goods can make it known that “their brand being associated with packaging that might end up in the belly of a sea turtle, or a whale, or a bird” will hurt business. 

“Recycling is not going to save us,” she said. Corporations associated with marine litter and plastic pollution, most of them based in the United States, must ensure that their packaging is not only recyclable but also recycled. “We have a situation now where a lot of the goods that are coming out of these U.S. and [European Union] companies are being sold in parts of the world that have zero waste management infrastructure. That seems a little egregious to me.” 

“Extended producer responsibility,” Ms. Hendrie said, posits that corporations are responsible for the entire life cycle of their products. Countries including Norway and Sweden have enacted legislation mandating that responsibility, she said, but in the United States, “it’s much more at the state 

level. There are a number of different states that have enacted bans on single-use plastic, but there are also, unfortunately, some state legislatures that have actually adopted bans on bans.” Nine states have moved to prevent municipalities from enacting single-use plastic bans, with similar legislation pending in others. 

On a brighter note, the panelists spoke of alternatives to plastic and efforts to rid the oceans of it. Mr. Ives spoke of a company making packing filler from hemp and another making straws from kelp, for example. Ms. Thys works with Think Beyond Plastic, a hub for entrepreneurs, industry, scientists, engineers, and consumer advocates to kick-start innovation and collaboration toward safe alternatives to plastic. Venture capitalists, she said, are “gathering funds to help catalyze this kind of innovation.” 

“The six worst offending countries in Asia have actually started to step up and recognize the problem,” Ms. Hendrie said, while Ireland’s tax on single-use plastics has brought a 90-percent reduction. Suffolk County’s ban on single-use bags, which took effect on Jan. 1, has resulted in a surge in the use of reusable shopping bags, she said. 

Ms. Thys referred to Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that has developed a passive drifting system that it estimates can remove half of the Pacific garbage patch in five years and is to deploy next month, and to National Geographic’s Geochallenge competition for middle school students, this year’s topic being plastic pollution. 

The U.N.’s Clean Seas campaign, Ms. Hendrie said, is urging nations to “turn the tide on plastic,” an initiative “specifically aimed at dramatically reducing the consumption and production of single-use plastics.” More than 60 governments have made significant commitments, she said, including India, which has committed to completely eliminate single-use plastics by 2025. “We are very forward-leaning on this,” she said. 

This week, Mr. Baldwin moderated the second discussion in the Hamptons Institute’s 2018 series, focused on the #MeToo movement. The last of the series will be on Monday at 7 p.m. and will focus on the opioid epidemic.