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Plastic Pollution in our Oceans

We're talking about fabric, so why am I even bringing up ocean pollution? Two reasons:  1. Synthetic fabrics are the cause of over a million trillion microfibers in the ocean. Every time you wash your synthetics you are causing ocean pollution. I talk about this issue in more detail here. 2. Polyester is made from the same type of plastic as PET bottles. If we look at how big our plastic pollution  problem is (PET plastics included) and how in need we are of a change then hopefully it'll inspire some to recycle those bottles so they can maybe become polyester fibers in the clothes we wear (or sew).

Ok, let's get started.

Fast Fashion, overproduction, polyester textiles, PET plastic, microfibers, plastic pollution, oceans, marine life and seafood...they all flow together. 

If you ever thought that, "I don't live near the water, so I'm not responsible for any ocean pollution. Not my fault...not my problem," then you are sadly mistaken. EVERYONE contributes to ocean pollution. Things you do today will contribute to the fact that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our ocean than fish (by weight). From washing your synthetics in hot water to tossing that water bottle in the trash can, a large amount of that plastic will make its way to the ocean. 

The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth's surface, and it is our largest dumping ground. 

Since the 1950s plastic production has gone from 2 million tons to over 380 million tons per year. Construction, machinery, cars, eye glasses, and even micro beads found in toothpaste are all made with plastic. It was invented to last, and unfortunately it is lasting too long. Due to overproduction and mismanagement, plastic now makes up 80% of the ocean's pollution (source).

So how much of that 380 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean? 8 million tons. That's the equivalent of a dump truck of plastic being dumped into our oceans every minute. By 2030 that could increase to 2 trucks per minute. 

  • The plastic debris floating on the ocean surface accounts for only 5% of all the plastic trash dumped into the sea; the other 95% is submerged beneath the surface
  • Many marine organisms can’t distinguish common plastic items from food. 
  • The likelihood of coral becoming diseased increases from 4% to 89% after coming in contact with marine plastic.


Over time, plastic decomposes into smaller pieces called micro plastics. It does not fully biodegrade. Some argue that every single piece of plastic that has ever been produced is still on this earth. Once they become micro plastics and fall below the ocean's surface they are very hard to remove.

With a hundred years' worth of plastic (mostly from the last 50 years) floating around our oceans, calling the ocean "plastic soup" is pretty accurate. 

 

 

 

Trash, mostly tiny pieces of plastic less than 10mm across, accumulate as ocean currents come together. Currently there are 5 of these massive patches of marine plastic which are called gyres.

 

The largest one is the North Pacific Gyre, also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's located between California and Hawaii and is the size of the state of Texas (270,00 square miles). However, most of the plastic is not concentrated enough to be seen from the sky or satellites. But, here there is more plastic than natural prey at the sea surface, which means that organisms feeding in this area are likely to be ingesting plastic. 

Twenty percent of ocean plastic comes from marine sources which includes boats, cruise ships, oil rigs, and other vessels. The other 80% comes from land sources, meaning the trash originated on land but because of winds, rain, drainage, cargo dumping (accidental and illegal), and our beaches there is a good chance one day it'll end up in our oceans.

How can we help reduce the amount of plastic waste entering our oceans?  While we can't fully eliminate plastic from our lives, we can separate it into essential vs non-essential plastic and work to reduce the amount of non-essential plastic that we use.

The most obvious non-essential plastics are single use plastics. Half of all plastic waste produced is for single use plastics, which are used just once and then thrown out.

Water bottles, plastic bags and straws can all be eliminated with minimal effort on our part. While plastic bottles (PET) are easy to recycle, bottle caps, straws, and plastic bags are not.

There are 7 standard classifications of plastic. They are made out of different types of plastic and are not all created the same.

PET (plastic #1) is the most known plastic but it only makes up a little less than 10% of plastic waste.

Plastics # 4 (LDPE) and #5 (PP) make up the majority of the plastic waste, and single use items make up a significant portion of these plastics. Plastic wrapping, straws, to go cups, bottle caps, plastic bags, and sandwich bags are all in these 2 groups.

Unfortunately, these items are difficult to recycle and many recycle centers won't accept them. These plastics are likely to have food contamination. Smaller plastics, like bottle caps and straws, and flimsy plastics, like plastic bags, tend to fall in between machinery belts at the sorting/recycling centers and cause damage. The overall value to a buyer is lower for these plastics. Because plastic is a commodity, sorting and recycle centers will focus on the plastics worth more in the market.

 There are no universal recycling rules, so what I can recycle at my house could be different from your state or country. Even the chart above listing that #s 4 and 5 are recyclable is not true for many locations. This causes confusion and could be a reason why recycle rates are so low. 

 Globally in 2015 our plastic waste was:

  • 19.5% recycled
  • 25.5% incinerated
  • 55% discarded

Plastic recycling rates are highest in Europe at 30 percent. China’s rate is 25 percent. The United States recycles just 9 percent of its plastic trash.

I'm recycling so my plastic is being recycled, right? Decreased exporting rates, contamination, and leakage are 3 reasons why your recycled plastic may not actually get recycled.

Exporting. Recycled plastic is a global commodity and is often sold to other countries. China was the largest importer of plastic. In 2016 the US shipped 693 thousand tons of plastic waste to China. At one time recycle facilities made money by shipping our scrap plastic to other countries (mainly China).

However this changed in January of 2018 when China implemented a ban on plastics. The US is forced to find other buyers and they aren't willing to pay as much. “Overall, the value of a ton of recycling has declined by about 40 percent over the past year" David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, told HuffPost in an email.  Many states and countries have nowhere to send their plastics. So, until a solution is found, a great deal of it is currently being sent to landfills.

With the recyclables going to landfills, the US recycle rate is expected to have dropped to around 4.4% for 2018 (down from 9% in 2015). That number can drop as low as 2.9% if other countries in Asia follow China's lead.

Contamination. About 25% of what you recycle is contaminated. Contamination can mean the recyclable is dirty, has food residue, or is not even an accepted recyclable item (i.e. bowling balls).  Contamination increases the cost to process the recyclables and it decreases the value of the recyclable in the market. The less contamination a bale of plastic has, the more money a buyer will pay. If the sorting facility deems that a load is too contaminated, the entire truckload could just be sent to the landfill. 

Leakage. Most of the plastic exported is sent to low income countries. These low income countries usually do not have the waste management infrastructure needed to properly recycle these plastics. They may also not have the same level of environmental standards, which means there's a good chance a lot of this could end up in our oceans or landfills. 

The majority of plastic leakage at risk of entering the ocean arises from Asia (more than 70%), Africa and the Middle East (17%).

Plastic can enter the ocean from coastlines or via rivers. Nearly 95% of river inputs arise from Asia (86%) and Africa (8%).

So in many instances even our recyclables are ending up in the ocean. It is time for every country to develop an effective waste management infrastructure, and cease plastic trade from high to low income countries until an investment has been made into their infrastructure. 

Are there new advances in the horizon? IBM researchers are working on a process they call VolCat recycling. It is a catalytic chemical process that will eliminate the need to wash and sort our PET plastics, and recycled PET will be of the same quality as virgin plastic. In addition, VolCat recycling will enable previously difficult items to now be recycled, including clothing, carpets, toys and more. Here's a short video released by IBM.

The team of researchers behind VolCat imagine the system being used at recycling and polyester manufacturing plants worldwide. In five years, the disposal of trash and the creation of new plastics could be completely transformed.

What can consumers do? For now the easiest quick win that everyone can do is to reduce the amount of single use plastics as much as possible, recycle all recyclable plastics, and support companies that use recycled materials.

Recycled materials tend to cost more than virgin materials, and the price fluctuates. Since recycled plastic is a global commodity, its value rises and falls. When oil prices are low, it’s cheaper to make plastics from virgin materials (i.e., petroleum products). 

However, brands that use recycled materials know that the value these materials bring to our environment is worth the added cost. Keeping plastic out of the ocean (as well as reducing CO2 emissions and energy) makes it a worthwhile cause and something we should all support. By creating the demand for recycled materials you can help lower the cost, ensure the bottles are recycled, and keep them out of the ocean.

To illustrate the power of buying recycled, I've noted how many plastic bottles are recycled per yard in the description of my fabrics. To date, REPREVE fibers have kept over 14 billion bottles out of the ocean, and I'm excited to add to that number.