Episode 1: China and The Global Plastic Challenge
5 March 2018
Everywhere you look, on beaches and in seas around the world, there’s plastic, and this is changing the fabric of our oceans. Why is plastic ocean pollution such a problem globally, and in Asia in particular?
We speak with experts from the academic, government and advocacy world, to learn about the impact of ocean plastic on seafood and our health. We will discuss how microplastics differ across the world and the source of the estimated 8,000,000 metric tonnes of plastic entering the oceans every year: uncollected waste from land.
Craig Leeson, A Plastic Ocean
Nicholas Mallos, Ocean Conservancy
Marcus Eriksen, 5Gyres Institute
William Robberson, USEPA Regional Response Team
Chelsea Rochman, Rochman Lab
Jenna Jambeck, Jambeck Research Group
Hi. My name is Sam Bekemans. Marcy and I spent many, many hours making this documentary series possible. And now that the series is out, I realise there is just so much info that never made it to the final cut! So if you'd like to find out more about this issue, the people we interviewed, or the details they mention; this is the place. I'll try my best to add all the links and info you might be looking for, but you can always reach out to us on our contact page if there's more we can help you with.
The picture above is one of many examples of the Southeast Asian beaches - littered with plastic - Marcy mentioned at the start of our first episode. But as Nicholas Mallos later says, these plastic beaches are literally all over the world.
Marcy: I soon learned that China is making a lot of progress right now.
To hear more about the progress China is making right now, you should definitely listen to our prologue, where Isabel Hilton talks about some of the steps China is taking to improve the environment. And as Liu Qin of chinadialogue writes: "China’s highest planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), announced on January 5 that it is looking at further measures to reduce plastic waste pollution."
But we need to be cautious in our optimism, as Liu further writes: China attended a December '17 UN Environment assembly that passed a draft resolution on marine litter and microplastics, but it "has not yet signed up to the UN Environment Programme’s #CleanSeas campaign."
part i: The problem with plastic
On to the first interview!
We kicked off our investigation into this topic by speaking with the man who inspired us to take action: Craig Leeson, director of A Plastic Ocean. If you haven't seen this film, you can get it on their website, and it is absolutely worth it.
Craig: For me, that moment when I got a punch in the gut, was when we were filming the shearwater birds.
Craig and his team of filmmakers went to Lord Howe Island off the Australian coast to film Shearwater birds, a visible victim of plastic waste. The chicks are fed plastic bits that float around in the ocean and that fool their parents with bright colours and an ocean smell.
Craig: In many cases these babies’ stomachs are becoming so full that they can’t eat anymore, and they starve to death. We walked along the beach every morning and there were dozens of these dead birds.
Lord Howe Island
Craig noticed that the plastic objects killing these birds are the objects he, you, and I throw away every day.
Craig: That word away - that I thought and had been told of was relevant to so-called disposable plastic. Because it goes “away”. Of course the truth now as we know it is that it doesn’t go away.
Here's a look at what volunteers and government staff collected while cleaning a beach on Midway Atoll, Hawaii.
Nick: Cigarette butts have always been the number one. After that it’s largely things like food wrappers, or plastic bags, or beverage bottles, or bottle caps.
Ocean Conservancy has been cleaning up beaches for 30 years, and Nick was there to pick up the pieces when the 2011 tsunami in Japan carried 5 million tonnes of trash into the Pacific
See that dark spot on the tsunami map? That's roughly where scientists have located the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch. If you have the time, the book 'Plastic Ocean' is a great read by the man who first discovered this concentration of marine debris. Far from being trash island some have pictured it, the Patch is the vast, moving, speckled heart of a large swirling current called the North Pacific Gyre.
Who better to interview about the phenomenon of 'gyres' than Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute? Marcus sailed a raft made of plastic bottles and an old Cessna from California to Hawaii, together with his wife Anna Cummins, and Joel Paschal. You can find his book about the journey here. Anyway, he knows a thing or two about ocean currents.
Marcus: There are five big subtropical gyres: the North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Pacific, South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean. Trash that enters the oceans will migrate toward these gyres.
Below is an illustration of the approximate location of the five gyres, from the incredibly interesting report 'Ocean Atlas 2017'.
Next we looked at the problem of microplastics. This is plastic smaller than 5 millimeters, though particles smaller than 100 nanometer are now sometimes referred to as nanoplastics. Depending on their origin, microplastics are divided into two groups: those that started off small, and those that degraded down from larger pieces.
The ones that were designed to be small are the primary microplastics, like nurdles, microbeads, and microfibers. Nurdles are pre-production pellets, meaning they were never meant to be seen by the consumer. When a petrochemical plant produces plastic from fossil fuels and gases, they produce these small colourless pellets, which are then delivered to a factory to be molded into all shapes and forms. Because these nurdles are produced in copious amounts, even a fraction lost in the process has a large environmental impact.
Microbeads are the pellets you'll find in scrubs and toothpaste. Public awareness about the polluting effect of these beads has recently led the United Kingdom to ban them.
Lastly, microfibers are a hidden peril. Long gone are days when we could prize fleece jackets for recycling PET bottles. Microfibers, released from textile during laundry sessions, could be the most common microplastic in the ocean. According to a 2011 study, "experiments sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines demonstrated that a single garment can produce >1900 fibers per wash."
Secondary microplastics are those that enter the ocean as a larger piece - a buoy, a styrofoam cup - and slowly degrade, battered by currents, winds, salt, and photodegradation (when the molecular chains are broken by sunlight and air).
Marcus: What we’re discovering is that these microplastics can absorb all kinds of toxins that are floating on the ocean surface. Things like PCBs, DDTs, other pesticides, industrial chemicals, even the oil drops from cars that go out to sea, stick to plastics in high concentration.
These toxins that are found hitching a ride on micro- and nanoplastic are called Persistent Organic Pollutants, POPs. A Japanese team of scientists is trying to monitor the amount of POPs found on pellets worldwide; if you find any nurdles on your next beach walk, send it to them!
Like Marcus said, these POPs often include DDTs and PCBs: compound molecules of the halogen group. Now, this is not becoming a lesson in chemistry, but I found this interesting enough to highlight.
The halogen group, as some of you may remember, includes Fluorine, Bromine, and Chlorine. These harmful elements are often used in the flame retardants mixed into plastic products, or form an integral part of some common plastics like PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride).
These plastics, themselves made up of halogen compounds, enter the ocean, break down into particles, pick up POPs floating in the ocean, and are then eaten by sea animals.
Craig: When fish consume them, it bioaccumulates. The toxins that are attached to the plastic release from the plastic and attach to the fatty tissue of the fish. And they bioaccumulate as that small fish is eaten by a bigger fish - is eaten by a bigger fish - is eaten by a bigger fish, all the way up the food chain till it hits us. We’re finding through studies that the Center for Disease Control did as far back as 2003 that 92.6% of all American persons have chemicals associated with plastic in their bodies.
The effect of these chemicals are not confirmed, but there are plenty of studies classifying chemicals found in (micro)plastic as endocrine disruptors, meaning they influence our hormone system. The question now is whether the doses we take in through consumption of seafood and drinking polluted water are enough to have an effect on our health. As this 2015 study by a body of global experts states:
Although it is evident that humans are exposed to microplastics through their diet and the presence of microplastics in seafood could pose a threat to food safety (Van Cauwenberghe and Janssen 2014), our understanding of the fate and toxicity of microplastics in humans constitutes a major knowledge gap that deserves special attention. Therefore, an analysis and assessment of the potential health risk of microplastics for humans should comprise dietary exposure from a range of foods across the total diet in order to assess the contributing risk of contaminated marine food items.
Part ii: The Source of Marine Plastic
With all this information about the negative impact of plastic on our environment. It was time to find out where this plastic is coming from. I talked about the different types of plastic entering our ocean, the nurdles and microfibers and larger pieces of debris; next we spoke with Chelsea Rochman.
Chelsea runs a research programme at the University of Toronto, focusing on plastic debris. For a study published in Nature a few years ago, she looked at fish in California and Indonesia, and noticed that the source of plastic in their tissue was very different.
Chelsea: In California, they were microfibres coming off our clothes in the wash, but in Indonesia we found more fragments - little particles of plastic that were broken down pieces and bigger plastic products.
The source of the marine plastic is different depending on the location, and it's almost all coming from land. This was confirmed by Jenna Jambeck. She caused a stir in the world press in 2015, when she published a study quantifying the amount of plastic that enters our ocean every year.
From the abstract:
"By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, we estimated the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. We calculate that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean."
The mid-range estimate for the amount of plastic reaching our oceans annually is 8 million metric tonnes. Or as Jenna puts it:
Jenna: If we’re all standing hand to hand, covering the entire coastline of the world, each one of us would have five grocery bags full of plastic.
Jenna's paper also concluded that 40% of all plastic waste in the ocean originated in just five countries, all located in Asia.
This doesn't mean these countries are to blame. Many of these nations are experiencing rapid economic growth, and an increasing number of people can finally afford the disposable lifestyle.
So how can we improve this situation? Chelsea's research showed us that the source of marine plastics is very different for different parts of the world. And this is reflected in a paper by the Ocean Conservancy, called Stemming the Tide. Working off of Jenna Jambeck's paper, their research shows that in China, the majority of waste is not collected, so a lot gets carried into the ocean over time. But in an archipelago like the Philippines, waste dump sites are often located near waterways, so a lot of waste that is collected still ends up in the ocean.
Improving this infrastructure will take massive investment. In recent years, China has shown a readiness to take on this challenge. What they're planning and how they hope to achieve this, is something to discuss in the following episodes of EIGHT MILLION. Stay tuned!