Plastic waste is contaminating the world’s oceans and threatening our health. A renowned environmentalist offered some tips to tackle plastic pollution at our recent Philanthropy Forum.
Many of us may have swum through plastic – from plastic debris to floating plastic bags – in the ocean. While this is an unpleasant experience, plastic pollution has often been perceived as a local issue. However, we now know this is a crisis happening on a global scale.
Craig Leeson, Global Evangelist for Plastic Oceans International, has spent much of his life in the ocean as a surfer, diver and lifesaver. As the fourth generation of a proud Australian journalism family, he is also a storyteller. His award-winning documentary, A Plastic Ocean, was shot on more than 20 locations over four years. It explores the ramifications of the growing presence of plastic in our oceans and its effect on marine ecosystems and human health.
Jean Sung, Head of The Philanthropy Centre for Asia, spoke with Leeson at the 2019 J.P. Morgan Philanthropy Forum to get a better understanding of the scope of the issue.
1. Plastic is made of oil
As of September 2018, 6% of all global oil reserves go into plastic production. 1 Considering the significant geopolitical and environmental consequences of fossil fuels, Leeson says we shouldn’t lose sight of this fundamental problem with plastic. Furthermore, burning plastic produces two of the most carcinogenic agents known: furans and dioxins.
“Where people burn plastic, we often see cases of cancer skyrocketing,” says Leeson, whose team put a special focus on the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu.
“We focused on Tuvalu as a microcosm of what's happening around the globe,“ he says, “because, just like Tuvalu, the Earth is an island and we don't have anywhere else to go or anywhere else to dispose of these products.”
2. Only a minority of ocean plastic is floating
There was approximately 8 million tonnes of global plastic waste entering in the oceans in 2010.2 River inputs are a significant source of plastic inputs to the ocean.
“What we see on the surface layers,” says Leeson, “is merely the tip of the iceberg.” That iceberg is having a big impact on our natural systems.
“The gyres drive all the life support systems we need for our survival,” says Leeson. “They stabilize our weather, distribute oxygen, absorb CO2 and move 16% of the animal protein we consume around the planet.”
3. Plastic breaks up, not down
As this vast volume of plastic breaks up in our oceans, pieces move further down the food chain. Over time, the sun's ultraviolet light, ocean wave action, and salt break it into smaller pieces called micro-plastics. These micro-plastics have rough pitted surfaces that also attract waterborne chemicals from industry and agriculture, making them “toxic poison pills,” according to Leeson.
Leeson’s documentary was the first to show plankton eating micro-plastics, revealing just how far this problem has passed down in the food chain.
“When small fish eat plankton, they absorb everything that the plankton carries,” says Leeson. “Then the big fish comes along and this bioaccumulation occurs.”
Bioaccumulation with plastics refers to the phenomenon when an organism absorbs a substance at a rate faster than that at which the substance is lost by natural excretion. The toxins carried by the plastics prefer fatty oils so they leave the plastics and migrate in to the fatty tissue of the fish, where they bio-accumulate up the food chain.
4. When you eat fish you eat plastic
It may be shocking to discover that if you consume fish on a regular basis, you are actually consuming 115,000 pieces of plastic every year. Or 12 plastic bags a year.
“That's a lot of plastic,” says Leeson. “But once again, it's not just the plastic, it's the toxins that are attached to it.”
This harsh reality has led Leeson to encourage people to demand safer plastic from manufacturers. Currently, the United States Food and Drug Administration does not have any regulations for the levels of chemicals with estrogenic activity that can be included within plastics, or from cosmetics, papers or silicones.
Fifteen years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States found that 92.6% of all Americans have plastic in their systems.
“In the last ten years we've produced more plastic than in the entire century before,” says Leeson, “so imagine what a study like that today would produce.”
And spare a thought for our aquatic wildlife. It is now thought that 96% of all sea birds have ingested plastic and many species are now threatened because of it.
5. Global ocean cleanup is not the ultimate solution. Instead we need to ‘fix the tap.’
While an obvious response to this crisis would be to develop strategies for large-scale removal of plastic from the ocean, to Leeson such an initiative is not currently possible.
“Even if we clean up what's on the surface,” he says, “we're not getting to the real stuff under the surface, and we have no technology or ability to get to that yet.”
Rather, Leeson likens our response options to a leaking tap that is flooding the floor. While we may want to pick up a mop and dry the floor, the real need is to fix the tap.
“We need to fix the tap by confronting single-use plastics,” says Leeson. “We need to look at our solid waste management and our infrastructure, and turn it off there.”
While some of Asia’s largest nations—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, India and Vietnam—are among the worst culprits when it comes to contributing plastic pollution to the oceans, Leeson believes that we should focus our attention on the origin of the material.
“Much of the packaging is made in America, Europe, Australia,” he says. “So who’s really responsible?”
6. Opposition to plastic can start in the supermarket
“It's simple to start reducing your plastic consumption,” says Leeson. “You start by thinking about the footprint of the single-use plastic that you're using.”
Leeson believes we need to confront the standard practices in our daily routine, such as the default presence of straws in bars and restaurants. Then you start making a scene at the supermarket. If your fruit and vegetables are wrapped in unnecessary plastic, Leeson encourages you to hand it back to the cashier as you’re leaving.
Unfortunately, plastic continues to be used by retailers because it enables them to promote their distinct brand.
“So we need to find alternatives,” says Leeson, “and we're coming up with new ways of printing, such as vegetable ink on coconuts and other produce.”
7. Recycling plastic can take many forms
Once the plastic has been created, we need to do everything we can to extend its usage. Plastic bottles are generally made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can be recycled simply. However, the problem is that it rarely is.
China caused a shock to the systems of many nations when it ceased to accept waste for recycling. Leeson sees the benefit of this development, as it has now further focused attention on the recycling infrastructure and practices of richer nations.
“It's forced every country that was dumping in China to look at its own mess,” he says.
Fortunately, the economics of recycling do make sense.
“It costs more to pull virgin product out of the ground and process it than it does to take products we've already processed and just change that back into the core components we need for pre-production pellets,” says Leeson.
We now need to encourage and invest in companies that are recycling. Leeson is a keen follower of a Chilean business, Comberplast, led by two brothers who are “nutters on plastic” and have created a circular economy around their own business, collecting post-consumer plastics, producing pre-production pellets and making consumer products from the recycled resource.
“They've even been able to recycle Tetra Pak, and they turn that into pre-production pellets that they make into sea kayaks. Previously, everyone said that you can't recycle that product. So you can recycle everything.”
8. Support the great stories
There are many more stories like the Chilean brothers. Leeson says we need to encourage entrepreneurs to come up with solutions.
“We have to say to entrepreneurs, ‘Look, if we support you, you can make money; and it's okay to make money off this problem because that's how we're going to solve it.’”
“So let's give them subsidies and we can do this by redirecting subsidies away from the fossil fuel industry.”
The power of storytelling also applies to big business. Leeson says that corporations worried about the hit to their bottom line from implementing more sustainable practices are not thinking long term.
“Stop looking at your front-end cost and look at your back-end cost,” he says.
When a business develops the story of its green credentials and differentiates itself from competitors, it can have an impact.
“People are going to spend more money with you if you're telling a great story.”
9. Legislation is vital
While there is a lot that can be done by altering the choices we make and supporting new businesses, Leeson believes that influencing legislation is key to creating meaningful change.
“The European Union and countries all over the world are banning plastics,” says Leeson, “But they're going up against a very big industry.”
As energy companies anticipate reducing demand for oil for transportation, they are investing in new chemical plants for plastic products.
“I think it's up to us to force legislative changes,” says Leeson, who also has a target message when talking to politicians.
“Governments will start paying attention to you when you talk about human health. I've turned around from being a pessimist to being an optimist. I think we can solve this problem.”
To learn more about what has been discussed at the J.P. Morgan Philanthropy Forum, please contact your J.P. Morgan advisor.
1 Source: Neufeld, L., Stassen, F., Sheppard, R., & Gilman, T. (2016). The new plastics economy: rethinking the future of plastics. In World Economic Forum. Available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf.
2 Source: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, Plastic Pollution, Our World in Data. Data as of September, 2018.