Have we started cleaning?

On Friday the 12th of June 2020, we participated in a seminar organised by Green Hive (Nairn) on the problem of ocean plastics in the Highlands and further. You can watch it on Youtube.

It was a great experience we are glad to be part of such a great group of speakers such as Andy from Green Hive, Mandy Barker the photographer, Julia Barton the artist and Jen Jones PhD/manager for the Galapagos Conservation Trust.

By the end of the talk, we were asked what we thought could be a game changer for the Ocean and the plastic issue. We said it was an unpopular opinion but we think we need to clean. Effectively it was very unpopular as many of the other speakers disagreed with us.

Big numbers and physics

We draw our strategy of cleaning from the actual numbers established by some research institutions and NGO and what is the actual mass balance of the plastic cycle.
First of all there is a massive uncertainty about where the plastic produced is. Studies that are already 6 years old estimated that 80% of plastic ever produced have been “lost”. It means it is in our environment, somewhere, the ocean, the lakes,the rivers, the continent, the atmosphere, the ice or a landfill. A bit in all these places in fact, in unknown proportions. This is lumping the ocean in a single box that covers 71% of the surface of the planet. In 2015, we had produced c.7 billion tons of plastics. Each year, we add between 300 and 500 million tons of plastic in the loop. These rates do not come from the industries they are estimates from NGO and journalists so there are uncertainties. About 40% of this production is for the single-use, meaning less than 25 minutes of usage. The life expectancy of the polymer used if not buried is between 450 and a 1000 years. If it is buried it can probably survive at geological time-scales.

In 2017, we compiled these data to show where we were heading. We used the business as usual scenario and also ones considering the appearance of superfactories.

Estimate of future world plastic production made in September 2017 by Plastic@Bay.

These curves were based on the plastic industry announcements. They have changed for different reasons but not necessarily for the best. We recently learned that the plastic industry got a boost of 30% in the last 6 months thanks to the pandemic. Plastic is comforting and feels safe even if it is the best surface vector for the COVID19 virus. Today, the curves might be slightly different but not much. Algeria wants a superfactory now so it might quickly get worse. Superfactories are giant production plants for plastic. Each one is supposedly capable of doubling the plastic world production. It is extremely unlikely that the situation suddenly reverses. We will have more plastic production in the next decades. Of course this is awful for the future of the planet. For the people concerned by our survival, ignoring this fact is also dangerous.

Lost plastic

In 2020, there is probably about 9 billion tons of plastic produced in total, so about 6.5 billion tons in the environment, “lost”. Why so many maybes? why don’t we know? Let’s try to look at it with a physics point of view.
If you are concerned by ocean plastic, you must have seen pictures of really old items that are picked up on the beach. What does it indicate?
It shows that plastic hangs out for a long time and that, since the beginnings of production, it is “lost”. The system is unbalanced: more plastics come in the environment than it can cope with since at least 70 years (start of large industrial production c. 1950). Each year maybe 80% of plastic is lost.
To make it understandable lets make it simple. Let say in 1950, we produced 100 plastic plates. We lost 80 of them. In 1951, like today the production increases of c.25% each year. So we make 125 plates, we loose 80% again, that’s 100 plates. So we have already lost 180 plates. In 1952, we make 156 plates, we loose 125, we have lost 205 plates. So in 2 years we have lost twice as many plates than we produced the first year. This goes on and on for 70 years. With this example, in 2020, we have made 3.8 billion plates and we have lost 2.4 billion plates. You can quickly see how the amount of “lost” plastic is important”. That’s how you get big numbers and both the production racing forward and our inability to “find” plastics are at the origin of the disaster.

How do we find plastic?

You probably saw me coming here, we find plastic by cleaning up. When you clean up a part of the environment, you find plastic that had been “lost”. The only way to actually make it found is to report it. That’s why we offer a free service for you to report the mass of plastic found. There are 6.5 billion tons of plastics to be found… Let’s it sink in… that’s a big number 65000000000000 kg. We could make it a respectable mountain if we could pile it up in a steep cone, about 4km high.

We have heard many times “You will clean up all your life if we don’t stop the production of plastic”. You can hear it in the webinar too. I personally think it is a misappreciation of the numbers. First of all, we WILL clean all our lives, the ones of our children, grand-children etc. Until we develop an autonomous way of cleaning it will be like that. I remind you that we have a whole mountain to recover. Not wanting to massively clean up is admitting defeat, it is very demanding but it needs to be done. The other solution is to leave the plastic in the ocean… If you are good at maths, you know that each individual needs to pick up a ton of plastic to make it even during their lives. Cleaning has a bad reputation but it is the only efficient way to make a place safer. I know many individuals that have cleaned much more than that, activists or just people caring for their place.

The utopia

Wanting the companies to voluntarily stop plastic production is an utopia. The problem of plastic is major since the 80s and exactly the inverse is happening. Plastic is too convenient to manufacture to be replaced. In theory, we could certainly get rid of single-use but I doubt it. The reason is that marketing is stronger than the will of people. Packaging is marketing and the reason companies make it single use is to be able to sell more. That people like it or not, it works. People buy more and more single use, synthetic clothes and all kind of rubbish that are harmful.

What I find even more problematic is that the act of cleaning is supposedly degrading whereas it is now essential to the survival of our planet. This vision is also spread into the activist groups and a lot of the refusal to engage in clean-up operations stem from this weird idea to be a failure if you clean up. I can tell you that to get up each day to remove what has been deposited by the last tide needs a strong will, a really strong one. It is notorious that it is almost impossible to get funding for environmental actions and if it is to actually clean up, than you can only rely on your free time and a few generous people.
For example 650 000 tons of fishing gear is lost at sea each year, is our only option to leave it there? Should we just all look at it until there is nothing left? Are we supposed to ask the fishermen to stop feeding the world? The real reason of this statu quo is that governments have never engaged actively into cleaning up. We have stated it for an interview with Arte. There is nothing serious done to cope with the 80% lost. We should have developed the technology and skills to deal with plastic in parallel with the apparition of the pollution. The problem is as much the production than the fact that most of it is getting out of the system. The petrochemistry became very high tech and they make themselves hefty salaries but still they spill nurdles by the billions and they don’t know or want to know how to recover them. They also don’t know how to recycle plastic that has been used aka contaminated. Only 2% of plastic packaging is recycled in plastic packaging, there is about 12% that is cascaded recycling meaning it is made into another lower quality product and 8% is incinerated.
When groups try to actually find ways of recovering it, they get no funding and even they can get attacked by other environmental groups. One striking example is The Ocean Cleanup which is the only group that actually integrates high tech and automation to try collecting plastic off the ocean and rivers at a scale that can be significant. This group is regularly the target of other influential groups. They might seem like they operate with very large budgets but if you compare it with the manufacture and the waste “management” worldwide, they are small.

If we are able to report how much plastic is recovered from the environment, there is nothing governments would hide with. They usually says it comes from somewhere else. However, when they export abroad almost all their plastic waste like the UK does, there is not much things to hide yourself with. National governments should finance the recovery of plastic pollution at the scale of which it is lost. This would cost billions and billions but there is no way around, plastic is too dangerous to be left hanging around for thousands or millions of years. If governments actually had to pay for it, serious decision would be taken and the problem would sort by itself. At the moment, it is just a struggle for groups like Plastic@Bay to financially survive whereas the people, groups and companies linked with the plastic business thrive and others dream that the production will stop. The new normal is to walk anywhere in the most remote part of the world and find plastic, it evens rains on us! We breath it, we eat it. It needs to go! We have 70 years of pollution to remove, it will be hard work but it needs to be done.