SPC tackles the global problem of packaging and marine debris

By John Kalkowski in Sustainable Packaging on June 02, 2011

In March 2011, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition held its 8th annual spring meeting in San Diego. The sand-and-sea setting on Coronado Island, CA, was the perfect backdrop for a discussion on marine debris and its connection to packaging.

There are compelling facts and figures about how packaging constitutes the bulk of marine debris that make it obvious why this is a key issue for brand owners, packaging substrate manufacturers and converters. Marine debris is typically defined as any man-made object discarded, disposed of or abandoned that enters the coastal or marine environment. It may enter directly from a ship or indirectly when washed out to sea via rivers, streams and storm drains.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, packaging-inclusive of food wrappers and containers, container caps and lids, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bags, glass bottles and beverage cans-consistently comprises approximately 36 percent of all marine debris, based on the conservancy's coastal cleanup data records collected over the last 25 years. If you include foodservice packaging-such as cups, forks, knives, spoons, straws and stirrers-that percentage jumps to 46 percent.

Marine debris tends to collect or accumulate in ocean gyres due to persistent and/or prevailing currents and winds. The media often refers to accumulated marine debris as "garbage patches," with the Pacific Ocean gyre now infamously known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is described as a "floating island of trash the size of Texas" visible to the eye.

This is simply not true.

While there are millions of pieces of debris in these gyres, most of the pieces are quite small. The circulation of the gyres cause the debris to swirl in a deep vortex with most of it below the surface. Although the popularized images of floating garbage patches are largely exaggerated, debris in the gyres is serious because the concentration areas move and change throughout the year, they are typically very large and, in most areas where marine debris concentrates, so does marine life.

While these plastics do bio- and/or photo-degrade, the process is slower in aquatic environments and they never degrade entirely. Rather, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces that can be easily ingested by marine life. Once in the digestive track of a fish, these particles act like tiny sponges soaking up other toxins in the water. As progressively larger fish feed upon each other, the toxins are transferred through the food chain. Larger mammals, such as sea turtles and the adult albatross, frequently ingest larger pieces, which generally results in their deaths.

Today, an increasing number of organizations are focused on combating marine debris. Among them are the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ocean Conservancy, the Sea Education Assn. and the United Nations Environment Program.

The plastic industry is also paying increased attention. At the 5th Intl. Marine Debris Conference in March 2011, the American Chemistry Council and Plastics Europe announced that representatives of 47 plastics organizations from 29 countries signed a declaration outlining steps they will take to help create solutions to this global problem. Additionally, the Ocean Conservancy recently launched the Trash Free Seas Alliance, a cooperative group of businesses, leading environmental organizations and others focused on developing solutions. For more information, visit www.marinedebrissolutions.com/declaration and www.oceanconservancy.org.

Author Katherine O'Dea is a senior fellow for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (www.sustainablepackaging.org),
a project of GreenBlue. For additional information, email [email protected].

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Thank you for reporting on the important global challenge posed by marine debris. While there is no quick and easy fix, experts agree that solutions include litter abatement, better waste management, and more recycling and energy recovery. As the article mentions, the American Chemistry Council and associations representing plastics producers around the globe launched a declaration on marine litter in March. Through these associations, the plastics industry will: 1. Contribute to solutions by working in public-private partnerships aimed at preventing marine debris; 2. Work with the scientific community and researchers to better understand and evaluate the scope, origins and impact of and solutions to marine litter; 3. Promote comprehensive science-based policies and enforcement of existing laws to prevent marine litter; 4. Help spread knowledge regarding eco-efficient waste management systems and practices, particularly in communities and countries that border our oceans and watersheds; 5. Enhance opportunities to recover plastic products for recycling and energy recovery; and 6. Steward the transport and distribution of plastic resin pellets and products from supplier to customer to prevent product loss and encourage our customers to do the same. We all agree that plastics and other debris do not belong in the world’s oceans. Many within the plastic industry are already working on efforts to reduce litter. For more information, please visit: www.marinedebrissolutions.com/global . The plastics industry looks forward to working with other stakeholders to bring about workable solutions to prevent marine litter. Keith Christman Managing Director Plastic Markets American Chemistry Council