The world’s oceans are contaminated with plastic pollution, primarily microplastics – smaller than a pea. In 2014, The 5 Gyres Institute published the first global estimate of marine plastics – 270,000 metric tons from 5.25 trillion particles. We’ve turned our oceans into a plastic smog.
Decades of scientific research on plastic pollution underscore the dangers plastics pose to marine ecosystems and wildlife: plastic particles absorb high concentrations of toxic chemicals in the ocean, are eaten by hundreds of marine species including fish, plankton, and filter feeders, and can transfer pollutants into the tissues of these foraging animals. The potential dangers to humans eating seafood are unknown yet also a consideration, as chemicals become increasingly concentrated up the food chain.
The discovery of plastic microbeads from personal care products in The Great Lakes catapulted the microplastics issue onto the National agenda in 2014, culminating in a Federal Bill in 2015. For the first time, we could identify microplastics with a source, produced by a specific industry, and hold them responsible.
WHY THE BIG CONCERN?
Plastic microbeads are a clear case of why design matters. These toxic plastics are designed to be lost in the environment – washing from our toothpastes, body washes, and facial scrubs into our lakes, rivers, and oceans, where they absorb contaminants, and become potential fish food.
The solution: design for recovery. And enact upstream policies to do away with the worst designs – plastic products that have no real recovery plan. Plastic microbeads epitomize “bad design” – but there are other products that beg the question: can we expect the public to “do the right thing” with products such as plastic straws, stytofoam packaging, plastic chip bags – products with no value at the end of their life cycle?
The Federal “Microbeads Free Waters Act” was a landmark step towards demanding better design, and holding producers responsible for the end life of their products. In order to truly solve the mounting problem of ocean pollution from plastics, we will need more such policy changes that move us closer towards a circular economy – one that values rather than trashes our precious natural resources.
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Anna Cummins – Executive Director, The 5 Gyres Institute
More Ocean. Less Plastic. How can you BE THE CHANGE?
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*article first published for Environmental Media Association March 23, 2016