Ocean plastics: What’s the big deal?

ocean-sunset

More than 20 years since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was first mapped in the waters between California and Japan, massive new islands of floating marine plastic continue to be discovered. The latest is the South Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of plastic pollution between Australia and South America that may encompass one million square miles. The Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean as well as the North Sea also contain debris eddies.

How can businesses, governments and individuals respond? You first have to understand the scope of the ocean plastics crisis.

Microplastics Are Forever

Shaped by ocean currents called “gyres,” the masses of trash are feed by the eight million tons of plastic dumped into the seas every year. Despite their vast size, toxic islands like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch often go undetected during visual scans of open waters. Instead of discarded milk jugs and water bottles bobbing on the surface, what research crews look for are high concentrations of partly submerged “microplastics,” which require water-sampling techniques to detect and assess.

Smaller than grains of rice, microplastics never go away unless removed, but they do get smaller and smaller and eventually sink to the ocean floor. Most marine plastic pollution comes from human activity on land, with the rest caused largely by the shipping and oil & gas industries.

Some 90 percent of birds in ocean environments ingest plastics, and more than 600 marine species total, including endangered animals, are harmed by marine litter. According to National Geographic, loggerhead sea turtles eat plastic bags after mistaking them for sea jellies. Albatrosses may cause their young to starve to death by feeding them plastic pellets that strongly resemble fish eggs.

In “ghost fishing,” seals and other marine mammals die after becoming tangled in plastic nets discarded by fishing boats. Debris patches also block the sunlight that algae and plankton need, creating food shortages for sharks and whales. And human beings can take in PCBs by eating tuna, mussels and other food contaminated with marine plastics.

Cleanup Challenges and Strategies

Proposed efforts to remove plastic garbage patches from the ocean face immense challenges. Among the most daunting:  It would take unrealistically large amounts of time and money. It is estimated, for example, it would take thousands of years and tens of billions of dollars to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone.

The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization designing technologies to help collect and remove plastic from the world’s oceans, is making progress, but some governments are joining forces to eliminate plastic litter before it can enter the water.

Approximately 200 countries signed a UN resolution to monitor and combat plastics pollution, and China, the world’s largest plastic waste producer, has taken steps to address the issue. The UK Government has committed to a goal of eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Other governments have already banned or mandated redesigns of plastic packaging and products, particularly bags.

Individual consumers can help by replacing single-use plastics like food containers and water bottles with reusable alternatives, recycling plastics from household and workplace trash, boycotting cosmetic products that contain microbeads, buying gently used electronics and toys rather than new, making bulk purchases, prioritizing home-cooked meals over takeout and getting involved in their communities through shore cleanups.

It is also helpful to join lobbying efforts to support regulatory bans on environmentally damaging products and make financial contributions to nonprofit initiatives such as the Lonely Whale Foundation’s Strawless Ocean campaign.

Businesses clearly have a major role to play in fighting plastic pollution as well. The fashion, restaurant and retail sectors, for example, still rely heavily on plastics in meeting customer needs.

Through the UN Environment #CleanSeas program, government and the private sector are working together to cut marine litter by focusing on eliminating microplastics in cosmetics and educating the public about the environmental dangers of disposable plastics.

Among the participants is Dell Inc., which makes product packaging out of recycled plastics removed from the sea off the coast of Haiti. But can the global business community do more — as individual enterprises, industries and regional marketplaces — to fight plastic pollution?

Healthier Waters

At DXC Technology, we continue to improve our proven process for managing IT e-waste that enables us to reuse viable equipment and recycle equipment that can’t be reused. That takes plastics out of circulation that might otherwise find its way into oceans far down the trash management cycle, and also helps eliminate leakage of heavy metals and organic chemicals from e-waste processing sites and landfills into groundwater.

In fiscal year 2017, DXC worked with an e-waste partner to designate 64 percent of our 40,000 used IT items for refurbishment and sent the remaining 104 metric tons for recycling — with none of the items ending up in landfill. Over the next three years we are targeting a 10 percent waste reduction across our global footprint.

It’s estimated that the plastics equivalent of 136 billion milk jugs finds its way into the world’s oceans every year. To confront this ongoing crisis, businesses, governments and individuals need to take a stronger, more unified stand against plastics pollution.

That means accelerating technological innovation to make marine litter cleanup more feasible and cost-efficient, adopting sustainable business practices and recycling protocols throughout enterprise operations and across supply chains and partner networks, making ocean-friendly choices in the home and consumer realm, and implementing stricter laws regarding the production and use of plastic bags and bottles.

The global community has recognized the ocean plastics challenge and identified ways to begin making our marine environments cleaner. Now is the time to act more urgently, with purpose and creative solutions, in defense of ocean health.

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