Discarded fishing lines and nets choking an underwater coral reef

Solving Ocean Pollution Needs a Little Less Conversation and a Lot More Action

by kirkcoburn
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Our oceans provide us with food and most of the oxygen we breathe (as we’ve discussed). They’re home to a million species (literally), and they link us to our past. Our global economy depends upon them for shipping and transport, not to mention the occasional vacation. Also, we derive from them pharmaceuticals that might cure cancer someday. Clearly, the seas that cover 75% of our planet are our greatest resource — and that should make solving ocean pollution a priority. 

Historically, we’re not doing enough to protect them. But that might be changing, thanks to recent legislation and the promise of new technology on the rise. 

Welcome to the final piece in our blog series dedicated to ocean pollution. Today we’ll review two primary types of maritime pollution and talk about what some nations are pledging to do about it. We’ll also take a glance at some clean technology in the works. 

Because, like that song performed by Elvis Presley (a tribute to my mother), it’s time for a little less conversation and a lot more action. 

The Two Types of Ocean Pollution

Our oceans face two primary types of pollution: chemicals, and trash.

We’ve covered this in more detail elsewhere, but remember that chemical pollution comes from:

  • Sewage treatment facilities
  • Transportation and shipping
  • Groundwater runoff
  • Environmental emergency instances, like occasional oil tanker spills

Trash pollution manifests as:

  • Commercial fishing debris
  • Garbage patch” trash cyclones (swirling in five known gyres)
  • Plastics, cigarette butts, and PPE — which we think will be an ongoing and monumental issue if we don’t get a handle on it ASAP

Ultimately, commercial and industrial organizations and individual human beings are responsible for all kinds of chemicals and trash finding their way to the oceans. It’s a growing problem that we must address — and soon. So let’s think about how some nations, organizations, and individuals have talked about solving ocean pollution.

The Conversations About Solving Ocean Pollution

Many countries, governments, and organizations have become vocal about maritime pollution. 

Nations Pledging to Reduce Maritime Pollution: The UN in 2019 

In 2019, the UN pledged to reduce plastics pollution in the ocean by 2030. As reported by BBC, after five days of talks at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, 170 nations agreed to a non-binding resolution about single-use “throwaway items” like plastic grocery bags.

Five days of conversation ended with a non-binding resolution. That sounds like lip service about solving ocean pollution to us. At the time, the US (Trump administration) disagreed with a proposal to halt all use of single-use plastics by 2025. We still should not rely upon government to solve / force the community to do what is right, but the data is clear that most of us are not good stewards of our own property let alone property reserved for all of us.

But a lot has changed since then. 

The US in 2020: Biden’s Opening Moves Start More Conversations

The Biden administration has made a lot of conversation about climate change. It cascades through maritime pollution issues, particularly in the form of chemical pollution and greenhouse gases, which may be causing sea temperatures to rise and ocean chemistry to change. 

  • On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he signed executive orders to re-join the Paris Agreement and focus on new chemical pollution standards. 
  • Then on January 27, 2020, he signed the second order, which established policymaking mechanisms and set forth a plan on climate resilience, environmental justice, and climate-related economic opportunities.
  • Many action items were due within 60, 90, and 120 days  (March, April, and May 2021).

Now these deadlines have passed. Critical thinkers note there hasn’t been much discussion about changes to our behavior as a nation regarding pollution. Talks to “Build Back Better” and create new infrastructure — which might use some recyclable plastics but cause GHG pollution in the process — are still underway. But the world is too busy thinking about the economy and the COVID-19 Delta variant to care. 

Conversations in Asia 

China is the biggest ocean polluter on the planet — by far. That’s not surprising when we remember that it’s also the most populous nation, by far.

But consider this:

  • 60% of China’s electricity is powered by coal, one of the “dirtiest” power generation methods.
  • President Xi Jinping has pledged to reduce carbon emissions, claiming they’ll peak in 2030 but be carbon-neutral by 2060.
  • Still, in 2020, 75% of the new coal power plants launched on earth were found in China.

China did promise a five-year plan (in 2020) to reduce fossil fuel use by 80% come 2025. They didn’t clarify whether they’ll be looking into solar, tidal, geothermal energy, or other options. Put another way, they’ve set a goal but offered no strategies or tactics to achieve it. 

China is a leader in wind and hydropower; however, that is driven to export to other countries. Ironically, most of this is fueled by coal. Look it up.  

Now that we’ve covered some significant conversations around ocean pollution, let’s get down to brass tacks. Who is doing something about it? What does the technology look like? 

It’s Time for a Lot More Action

Compactor driving over a plastics landfill near the ocean

Plastics have been a part of our daily lives since the 1950s. Since that time, we’ve created something like 8 billion metric tons (16,000,000,000,000 lbs) of plastic pollution.

While governments play a key role, our efforts will only be practical when coupled with industrial action, technological innovation, and OUR choices as individuals.

 It’s time for action. 

But — and we’ve mentioned this before — while the technology might be nearing birth, investments in solutions have not been sufficient. There is a genuine lack of investible entities in this sector with a good track record for profitability. Even though venture capitalists will get a paycheck regardless of success or failure, no one wants to drop millions or billions of dollars on a loser if they can help it. See the economic problem here?

Still, there are a few technologies already at play. Let’s explore some! 

StormTrap Provides an Actionable Solution for Any Application

StormTrap is self-described as modular concrete stormwater management. The genius is in its simplicity. At its most basic, the product is like a concrete cube with nets inside. The notion is that we can place these cubes in areas of stormwater or groundwater runoff. The water — which will always seek the lowest point or flow downhill — travels through the cube, and solids are caught by the mesh nets to be removed.

Now, we don’t speak on behalf of StormTrap. But per the manufacturer, larger applications can handle the output of community-wide sewage treatment plants. It promises to remove the plastic and debris and protect the municipal pumps in the process. The US government and educational institutions currently employ it. Also, we can imagine it finding a home beneath more college campuses.

In the private sector, these enormous filters can be installed at factories, plants, and even grocery stores. It’s all about keeping the debris from hitting rivers and tributaries, which eventually flow into the oceans. And we think it’s terrific!

Now that the debris is collected, we must do something with it. 

Our landfill space is finite — though perhaps not utterly overwhelmed as the media would have you believe. Yet. So what happens to all that plastic?

We won’t get into the details in this article, as we’ve covered this before. But in a nutshell, plastics must be sorted, melted, and redistributed for reuse as recycled plastics. Much of the material is lost to the cause during the sorting phase, and that’s a problem for solving ocean pollution.

Less Variety Among Plastic Containers Would Help

Our current recycling technology doesn’t work with all types of plastics or all types of bottles. 

Next time you’re walking through a grocery store, take a look at all the plastic water bottles. Each water “brand” has its identity, and the water bottles convey that. We can say the same for detergent bottles (most of which aren’t recyclable anyway) or cosmetics containers. The list goes on.

So a handful of universal molds for the most common plastic containers could go a long way towards improving our plastic waste’s recycling ability. 

Yes, we realize a single, universal water bottle might make for a boring trip down that aisle at the grocery store. But if you’re relying on that for entertainment, maybe you need to get out more. 

Now, let’s pretend it’s 2030. We’re trapping most of the plastic debris before it hits the oceans and recycling more of it thanks to universal bottles. Then what?

Let’s Use Plastics to Rebuild Infrastructure

We’re thinking about the world’s roads, bridges, telephone lines, and school facilities. Unfortunately, plastic takes a long time to decompose. However, we can make it more flexible, longer-lasting, or temperature-resilient if we put our minds to it. 

One Final Thought About Solving Ocean Pollution

Let’s close this series with one final concept: the earth is a closed system for matter. There are X numbers of atoms — of protons, neutrons, and electrons — here on the planet. They change form, melt, boil, steam, and redistribute continually. Aside from the occasional meteorite, the entire world recycles itself constantly via the water cycle and rock cycle. A little climate change might speed up or slow the process, or it might not. 

To humans, plastics seem to take forever to decompose because our lifespan is a little less than 100 years. The lifetime of plastic is a little longer. But ultimately, no matter what bridge we build out of recycled plastic, it will all end up in the core of the earth being cleansed and vomited back to the surface as new rock, eventually. From there, it will become the soils and trace minerals required by whatever form of life that comes next. 

The actions we take today will have long-lasting consequences, true. Think of our “green” actions toward solving ocean pollution today as good housekeeping and good citizenship. But remember that this house will eventually be rebuilt from the ground up. No matter what happens, we aren’t “killing the Earth.” 

 Related Reading & Resources for Solving Ocean Pollution:

NationalGeographic.org: Marine

WhiteHouse.gov: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, July 20, 2021

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