The American Chemistry Council has responded to a recent report on ocean plastic concentrations, and spoke to Planet Experts on its efforts to prevent plastic litter.
On Wednesday, the 5 Gyres Institute published its “All Gyres Paper” in PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed journal. The culmination of six years of research, the report featured the first-ever global estimate of the ocean’s plastic content: About 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing close to 269,000 tons.
To put that in context, that’s enough two liter plastic bottles to go to the moon and back twice, as the report’s lead author and the co-founder of 5 Gyres, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, recently told NBC News.
Most of this plastic (about 92 percent) degrades into particles that are smaller than a grain of rice. Though invisible to the naked eye, this plastic can pose a health hazard to marine life. Mistaking the particles for plankton or other bits of food, animals can eat the plastic, not only damaging their insides but also absorbing any toxins that the plastic has absorbed. Such toxins can include PCB, DDT, pesticides and mercury, all of which can be passed along the marine food chain, growing in toxic concentration, until they end up in the seafood humans eat.
Responding to the 5 Gyres report, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) immediately issued a statement of concern over the findings. “America’s plastics makers wholeheartedly agree that littered plastics of any kind do not belong in the marine environment,” the Council wrote. “Even after plastics have fulfilled their initial purpose, these materials should be treated as valuable resources and recycled whenever possible or recovered for their energy value when they cannot.”
Based in Washington, D.C., the ACC is an industry trade association for American chemical companies, an $812 billion enterprise that has created nearly 800,000 manufacturing and “high-tech” jobs and nearly 7 million related jobs. The association’s stated mission is to “promote the interests of companies engaged in the business of chemistry.” This includes the plastics industry.
In the statement, the ACC notes that plastic makers in the United States have been engaged in efforts to address “marine litter” since 2011, when leaders from plastics associations signed The Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter. Signatories to the Declaration pledged to focus on “education, public policy, best practices, plastics recycling and recovery, plastic pellet containment, and research” related to plastic pollution. Thus far, 185 projects dedicated to that mission have allegedly been completed or are in progress throughout the world.
In an email to Planet Experts, Keith Christman, ACC’s Managing Director of Plastics Markets, wrote that ACC “has undertaken 45 of the 185 projects identified in the [Declaration’s] Progress Report.” These projects have fallen under each of the Declaration’s commitment work areas and include education and research initiatives, as well as placing “nearly 700 recycling bins on California beaches and state parks to collect recyclables and prevent marine debris.”
In addition to these projects, Christman wrote, “We also are a key supporter of the Curbside Value Partnership – a program that provides assistance to communities to increase recycling. We also have supported legislation to phase out microbeads from personal care products, including a law signed in Illinois this year.”
In June, Illinois became the first state in the country to ban the sale of products that contain plastic microbeads. The microplastic particles are commonly used in health and cosmetic products for their exfoliating properties, yet their small size allows them to pass right through most cities’ water filtration systems and into the watershed. Even before the “All Gyres Paper,” microbeads and other microplastic particles were found in the Great Lakes, Canada’s St. Lawrence River and 88 percent of the ocean’s surface.
Earlier this year, California tried to pass its own version of a microbead ban, but failed by one vote. Environmental groups are currently gearing up to push a new version of the bill in 2015.
The ACC has developed other initiatives to prevent plastic pollution, such as Operation Clean Sweep, a campaign to implement best practices that work towards “achieving zero pellet loss” in thousands of plastic resin handling operations throughout the world. The Council has also participated in the United Nations’ Global Partnerships on Marine Litter, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and is a founding sponsor of Keep America Beautiful.
“A key part of our declaration is to create and expand partnerships, because preventing marine debris is going to require all of us working together,” said Christman.
In the press release for the 5 Gyres report, Dr. Eriksen spoke on the need for mitigation strategies to focus on the life cycle of plastic, from production through use and disposal. “The status quo,” he said, “is not acceptable.”
Christman agrees with this sentiment. “Plastics don’t belong in the ocean, or littered on land for that matter,” he said, “so we agree the status quo is unacceptable. Because litter comes from a wide range of places and is caused by a wide range of factors, there is not likely to be a single solution that works everywhere. However, broadly speaking, we believe there is an important role for reducing and reusing plastic where we can, recycling as much as possible, and recovering what can’t be recycled for its energy value.”
Christman added that there is a “role for everyone” in this mission, including “material and product makers, retailers, recyclers, community leaders, and consumers.”
The “All Gyres Report” and reports of its kind have benefited the industry, said Christman, by increasing the awareness and understanding of the nature and extent of marine debris.
“Their data,” he said, “combined with data from Sea Education Association, the International Coastal Cleanup, and others are giving us a more complete and accurate picture, which will help us focus on the most effective and locally relevant solutions.”