Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How can we cleanse our oceans of plastic?

All it took was David Attenborough's excellent Blue Planet 2 programme covering plastics in the ocean for it to become a major concern. Today's news is that the amount of plastic in the sea is set to treble over the next 10 years unless something is done.

So what can be done?

This is a huge subject, and this blog post aims to take a broad look at the subject, from cradle to grave, setting out principles and pointing out opportunities.

The full negative impacts of plastic pollution, including on human health, are summarised here.

The first thing to realise is that plastic pollution can only be controlled if most people stop believing in the dominant paradigm of our age, namely, free market fundamentalism, the ideology based on the slightly dodgy notion that enormously wealthy individuals running corporations that are answerable solely to their shareholders, competing against each other for filthy lucre, and entirely free from legal rules, will inevitably produce the best of all possible worlds. 

We have to shift from this neo-liberal ideology to an evidence-based green economy, where economics and ecology are seen as sister disciplines, where it is recognised that indefinite expansion into a finite space is impossible, and a transition is made from a linear economic model to a cyclical model, and where the inter-connectedness of all things on the surface of our planet is recognised.

It is exciting to think that we are living in a time that may see a huge reduction in the production of oil-sourced non-biodegradable plastic goods. 

We must take the whole view of plastics, from cradle to grave, looking at the possibilities for cleaning up our act.

First, we must look at the production of plastic. 

Bisphenol A is a plasticiser commonly used in production of plastic, and is known to have hormone disruptive properties. Its use should be reviewed and monitored. In particular it should be avoided in plastics which may come in contact with food, particularly babies' drinking vessels.

We need to review the utility of plastics, which range from the frivolous to the useful to the  necessary. We need to restrict single-use plastics as far as possible, either by bans, or by placing levies and taxes on their production.

Some applications, such as microplastic beads used for trivial purposes, for instance in toothpaste, can be banned outright.

Dog waste bags should always be of biodegradable plastic, because of the habit of irrational dog owners to bag the waste, then hang it from trees or leave it on the ground.

We need to favour alternatives to plastics, established or emergent, with subsidies.

We need to remember that the deeply anti-democratic firm Ineos, wants to frack the UK in order to make more plastic.

Plastic Litter

Plastic litter is not only aesthetically unpleasant, it also has an ecological and economic impact. For instance,  polythene 6-pack rings can entrap wildlife. If a storm picks up a plastic bag and it catches on a power cable, the increased wind drag on the cable may bring the cable down. Land based litter can get into rivers and streams and thence onto beaches and the sea.

In the past, glass bottles carried a deposit. It is perfectly possible to bring this system back, so that every bottle has a small economic value that will be repaid when it is handed back in to shops, who will receive a further handling charge when it is transferred back to the distributors. This simple measure turns small boys and girls into litter scavengers.
Volunteers often go out doing litter picks. This is great, but volunteers can only be called on to go out once or twice a year. So we need paid litter squads to go our on a regular basis. How can this be paid for?

The way forward is to carry out a pilot study in two or three areas, to find how many hours are needed to clear an area, what the costs are, and what the haul consists of. If we find one tonne of plastic, half a tonne of newspaper and a half tonne of cigarette packets, the producers of those items will be charged to pay a proportional litter-levy for the full clean-up across the whole country. 
This will persuade them to educate their customers to stop littering.

This suggestion will of course provoke a hysterical reaction from Tory tabloids as indicating the end of Western civilisation and its collapse into a pre-Stone Age condition, but in fact it will be a fairly short-term measure, because when the environment becomes more tidy, and as the unacceptability of litter sinks into the public mind, littering will decrease overall, and the litter-levy can be reduced and even stopped.

The cost of labour for litter picks can be reduced by means of the Green Wage Subsidy, where JSA and ESA claimants can take their benefits into work with them, as is the case with Basic Income.

Another cost-free option is to use Community Payback offenders to do the work.

Beaches are particularly important places to pick up plastic jetsam, because they give us an opportunity to screen off water-borne litter. High tides can pick up beach litter and take it further along the coast, or fully out to sea.

Much litter retrieved can be recycled, but some is non-recyclable.

Although the UK produces only a fraction of a the total plastic litter in the ocean, it is vital that we complete the fullest possible clean-up of our beaches, in order to set an example to the rest of the world.

Ocean garbage
An exciting new venture, the Ocean Cleanup, aims to remove half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years. It uses a huge drifting filter, using sea anchors, to collect sea borne plastic. It is just moving out of the pilot project stage at the moment, but it deserves a massive boost.
A just and effective boost would be to use the Polluter Pays principle, imposing a tax on oil and plastics industries which is passed to the Cleanup project. 

In short, we are at a turning point in history where not only will we turn our backs on the trivial over use of plastics, but also will transform our whole economy into a cyclical, rational, green system.


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