Our polluted oceans

“If the ocean dies,” said Paul Watson, founder of the activist group Sea Shepherds, “we die.”

The oceans aren’t in hospice care yet, but they qualify for a bed in the intensive care ward. And we’re also on the waiting list.

Only about half the oxygen we breathe comes from trees and other ground-rooted plants. The other half is released into the air by phytoplankton, microscopic plants floating on or near the seas’ surface. These vital, invisible organisms are what gives the sea its greenish tinge. If phytoplankton begin to disappear, the amount of oxygen in the air will shrink at a time when there are more and more people needing to breathe it.

Phytoplankton, along with other sea creatures and the oceans themselves, absorb and hold about 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere. Unhealthy seas would be less able to keep that CO2 out of the air, making it harder for land-based life forms like us to breathe.

About half the world’s population depends on seafood for a significant amount of the protein they eat and more than 500 million people depend on the fishing industry for their livelihoods. As more and more fisheries approach exhaustion, the food supply for billions of people is threatened.

Also, phytoplankton are the foundation of the oceans’ food chain. Threats to their survival indirectly threatens ours. In short, sick oceans mean a growing number of more hungry and oxygen-starved people.


Three factors have left Earth’s oceans in need of intensive care:

First, humans are carbonizing the atmosphere. We spewed a record 45 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air in 2017, according to the Global Carbon Project, a nonprofit venture coordinating the work of governments and academics. More than a third of that carbon is absorbed into the seas, where it reacts with water to form carbonic acid. The acidic seawater corrodes phytoplanktons’ protective shells, risking their survival – and, therefore, that of the oceans’ entire food chains. Studies are finding 20 percent less phytoplankton in the Indian Ocean than 60 years ago.

And more carbon in the air causes the oceans to warm. Warmer waters disrupt habitats of sea creatures. Most dramatically, it causes coral reefs to bleach and die, destroying these unique ecosystems that support an array of marine life, including many species of fish we eat.

Second, our rising population is eating more fish – more than twice as much per person compared to 50 years ago. At least a third of the world’s fisheries are collapsing, most notably the Canadian North Atlantic’s cod fishery, which led to Canada’s ban on cod fishing in 1992. Two studies in 2015 noted that cod were once again increasing in numbers there, but added that warming ocean temperatures were making it harder for them to thrive and reproduce.

Third, the oceans have become the world’s trash collector. The 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, an international treaty, forbids the deliberate dumping of wastes created aboard ships or planes crossing the oceans.

Since then, the US and other countries have passed many laws banning the dumping of sewage, chemical, and industrial wastes into the seas. And the 1972 Convention was replaced in 2006 by the more comprehensive “London Protocol”. But the seas are still swimming in trash, including an estimated five trillion pieces of plastic.

Plastic bottles wind up in street gutters and wash into sewer systems where processing plants often can’t manage them. The debris is then flushed into rivers, eventually drifting into the sea. Paper and plastic blow off the decks of ships. Fishing boats lose nets. Winds pick up loose plastic bags and carry them offshore. Stuff happens.

Because paper and plastic float, the oceans’ currents take the trash on a continuous world tour. The most infamous result is the Pacific Garbage Patch, now twice the size of Texas, a trash vortex that’s trapped and held in place between California and Hawaii by the intersection of several currents. The Central Gyre system of currents guides a spiral of trash through the Gulf Stream into the Atlantic Ocean. Three other massive floating dumps have been globally charted.

But the plastic doesn’t just idly float. As the plastic begins to degrade, the nuggets look like fish eggs to scavenging birds. The plastic pieces become smaller and smaller and are ingested by an array of marine life, clogging their digestive systems. A 2018 Greenpeace study found plastic microparticles in 90 percent of 39 brands of sea salt in grocery stores.

Eventually, the granules carpet the sea beds, smothering or otherwise disrupting fragile undersea habitats and ecosystems. Turtles, birds, and fish become entangled in loose fishing nets floating just below the waves and starve or drown. The oceans become deserts.


But now, technology is sailing to the rescue. According to Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, his innovative System 001 has passed its latest test on the high seas.

Slat has created a 2,000-foot floating plastic boom with a curtain-like attachment. The curtain hangs ten feet down from the boom. The ends of the boom can be weighted, allowing currents to push the lighter center into a U shape. Alternatively, the U can be created by ships stationed at each end of the boom, pulling the ends forward. Plastic bits drift into the U and gather against the curtain, staying trapped so trash barges can skim up the debris.

The curtain is solid, not a net, so birds and sea life won’t become tangled. A gentle current washes down toward the bottom of the curtain, guiding fish and other critters down and out. But the current isn’t strong enough to counter the plastics’ buoyancy, so the trash stays in place, ready for removal.

The approach makes sense. Research has found that most of the oceans’ plastic waste spends time hovering in the top two feet of water. Scooping it up before it can degrade into the microparticles that rain down on the seabed, or that sea life ingests, is useful triage.

But System 001 is a Band-aid on a bullet wound.

“Once plastic gets into the ocean, it’s impossible to get it all out,” says John Hocevar, a marine biologist and director of Greenpeace USA’s Ocean Campaign. “We have to keep plastic from getting into the oceans in the first place.” He’s right.

In that department, Mr. Trash Wheel is on the job. It’s a garbage barge parked where Baltimore’s Jones Falls River meets the Atlantic Ocean. A boom strung across the river snags trash drifting down toward the sea. A water wheel on the barge is turned by the river’s current and operates a mechanism that draws the stopped trash to the barge and up into it for disposal.

Since wading into the river in May 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel has skimmed 1,000 tons of waste out of the river and kept it from the sea.

More sweeping efforts are underway. The European Union and Costa Rica have voted to ban single-use plastic items, from fast-food forks to plastic grocery bags. Britain is mulling a similar move.

This past September, McDonald’s UK began swapping out plastic straws for paper ones. It will do the same across Europe and the US in 2019. The change will have heft; it’s estimated that in the US alone, 500 million plastic straws are tossed in the trash every day.

Accompanying that effort, initiatives are under way to reduce the billions of plastic bottles trashed every year, an estimated 35 billion in the US alone. Greenpeace is fostering conversations among drink and bottle makers, retailers, and food giants such as Nestle and Unilever that could scale back excess plastic and packaging. Already, food service giants Sodexo and Aramark have pledged to do the same. Their combined promises could ripple to consumers and up and down the supply chain.


In October 2018, a breakthrough initiative, coordinated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, joined together about 250 organizations, including giants such as Unilever, Colgate and Coca-Cola, to stop the flow of plastics into the oceans.

Consumer product companies that have joined the effort account for about 20 percent of the world’s plastic packaging.

The consumer products companies involved promise to make all plastic packaging recyclable or compostable by 2025 and will issue annual public reports on their progress. They also will cut back their use of “virgin” plastic, which is newly-manufactured plastic, usually small pellets known as nodules, that have not yet been made into a product.

Recycling processors also are committed, and municipal governments have signed on to create legal and regulatory frameworks to ensure that recyclable plastics actually get recycled.

This isn’t just lip service. SC Johnson has tested selling Windex refills to wean consumers from always buying new squirt bottles. In Indonesia, it has opened eight recycling centers that pay locals for plastic collected from rivers and beaches. Johnson then will use the collected plastic to make new packaging materials.

As the issue of plastic pollution floats onto the front page, food markets will offer more bulk dispensers and more refill stations, especially for spring or clean water. Greenpeace’s Hocevar sees a sign of hope in PepsiCo’s recent purchase of SodaStream, which makes a gadget that lets you carbonize plain water and add flavored syrups to make your own sodas at home.

“SodaStream gives people the ability to make great-tasting beverages while reducing the amount of waste generated,” PepsiCo chair Indra Nooyi said of the acquisition. “That focus is well-aligned with ‘Performance with Purpose’, our philosophy of limiting our environmental footprint.”

Ultimately, lawmakers must step in to regulate the runaway problem of single-use plastics. Environmental advocates are talking with members of Congress and see hope for meaningful legislation within five years, perhaps carried by Federal legislators who led the passage of the 2015 Microbead-Free Waters Act. TJ


These early steps, initial conversations and innovative technologies around saving the seas will gain strength and momentum. We forecast they will converge before 2030, to change our norms and behaviors around the dangers to the oceans, including throwaway plastics. Inventors, investors, and Ontrendpreneurs who recognize this emerging long-term trend toward ocean-sensitive consumer behavior can be poised to profit.

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