Americans aren’t polluting the oceans with plastic

In a recently released report, the National Academy of Sciences takes direct aim at the United States as the world’s largest contributor to plastic waste floating in the oceans. But this misleading claim requires further examination.

Other sources do not support the Academy’s position that this is an American problem. The source of most of the plastic, the overwhelming majority, is Asia. Currently, China, India and the Philippines are making little or no effort to intercept consumer-generated plastic before it goes to sea. These three nations are recognized as the main generators, with the United States coming a distant eighth in one study and further down the list in others.

In fact, the US contribution to plastic waste in the oceans is said to be less than 2% of the global total.

The ultimate destination for Asian plastic waste is a slowly rotating whirlpool – or, if you prefer, a sluggish whirlpool of Pacific water – located north of the Hawaiian Islands and covering an area allegedly three times larger than France. .

A second “garbage patch” is found in the Atlantic Ocean, extending below Bermuda, south towards the Tropic of Cancer. The “Sargasso Sea”, as the first Portuguese navigators referred to it, covers a vast expanse of water often becalmed by lack of wind. Vast beds of kelp, a seaweed known as sargassum, stretch far beyond the horizon in a mosaic pattern.

The waste comes from the continents defining the Atlantic basin. Upon arrival, the wrecks mix with kelp and serve as substrate for barnacles and other sessile sea creatures. Together they form impenetrable mats. A plastic object light enough to float in seawater can be carried great distances by prevailing surface currents.

The Atlantic currents on the outskirts push the wrecks into the gyre, effectively preventing its escape. These are the Gulf Stream along the western edge, the North Atlantic Current to the north, the Canary Current to the east, and the North Atlantic Equatorial Counter Current to the south.

A number of coastal municipalities across the United States have banned plastic straws and bags in an effort to reduce the plastic load in the oceans. But even a national ban on plastic consumer items by the federal government would not solve this problem given the small contribution of the United States to plastic waste in the world compared to Asian countries and several countries in Africa and Asia. South America, where solid waste management is still in its infancy. stage of development.

Also, note that none of the 10 major rivers that carry most plastic waste to the sea are even in North America.

A recent personal experience recalled news reports of sea life becoming entangled in abandoned fishing gear adrift on the ocean. I noticed a partially submerged plastic bag as it moved erratically in a tidal stream. I retrieved the bag and found a very live largemouth bass inside. I released it and then threw the bag away.

Turtles, birds and whales are threatened by fishing gear lost at sea. They may come across abandoned nets, floats, hooks and lines, much to their dismay.

And therein lies an important question: what poses a greater danger to marine life? Is the wreckage made up of plastic cups, bags, and similar items that attach themselves to the kelp beds? Or are they inherently dangerous sharps and webbing associated with the fishing trade that stay afloat indefinitely? I’m not sure we know that.

The best final resting place for plastic waste is a properly managed landfill. Even better are efforts to salvage plastic and concentrate it with other combustible materials as fuel to generate electricity. And better yet, to recycle it into consumer goods made from recoverable plastics. Some popular designer clothing brands use recycled fishing line that is remelted and made into yarn and fleece for ski wear.

Opponents of plastics suggest substituting materials such as biodegradable paper (vegetable fiber) in drinking straws. Indeed, the paper straw preceded the plastic varieties by several decades. But a straw gets in the way if it collapses before the drink is consumed.

The riddle of what to do about offshore plastics remains unsolved. From our perspective, a global solution lies beyond the regulatory powers of the United States and resides overwhelmingly in the hands of foreign countries responsible for the remaining 98% of plastic waste in the oceans.

William D. Balgord holds a Ph.D. in geochemistry and runs Environmental & Resources Technology, Inc. in Fort Pierce, Florida. Previously, he coordinated environmental and resource recovery policies for a major trade association.

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