Last week, the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps hosted two evenings of presentations and panel discussions for the Plastic Awareness Global Initiative (PAGI). The event gathered leading scientists, researchers, government and non-profit coordinators, and artists into a comprehensive forum to discuss the most pressing needs and promising projects for reducing marine plastic pollution.
The first night of the event created a space for those at the forefront of plastic science to come together and integrate their expertise, providing insight to the current state of the ocean’s health and guidance for the road ahead. Dr. Jenna Jambeck- a National Geographic Explorer and professor at the University of Georgia- helped to set the stage, sharing that only 9% of plastics in the U.S. are recycled each year, and the equivalent of one dump truck of plastic per minute currently ends up in the ocean. Between four and twelve million tons of plastic find their way into our oceans yearly- the weight of up to 60,000 blue whales. The majority of this pollution comes from packaging and other single use items, lost or derelict fishing gear, debris from catastrophic events, microbeads and microfibers. There is an increased trajectory for future plastic production, which means the masses infiltrating marine ecosystems will only grow.
Work being done by scientists like Dr. Jenni Brandon and Dr. Linda Amaral-Zettler and is revealing the magnitude and prevalence of marine plastic pollution. Dr. Brandon of the Birch Aquarium shared that in her plankton samples, 100% of salps (a species of small, swimming invertebrates) had microplastics in their stomachs. Plastic debris can also serve as a transport mechanism for invasive species. Even on a microscopic level, marine microbes often live on plastic debris in a world referred to as the “plastisphere” by Dr. Amaral-Zettler, senior scientist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research.
Leaders from agencies and organizations including NOAA, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Pew Charitable Trusts, Californians Against Waste, Surfrider Foundation, the City of San Diego and the UC San Diego Visual Arts Department congregated on the second night of the event. These groups are currently working on a range of projects to address plastic pollution, specializing in unique components of the overall effort. Their work includes prevention and source removal, legislative and regulatory engagement, scientific research, policy analysis, economic strategy, education and outreach efforts, business and marketing programs, and advocacy through art and culture.
Panelists emphasized the need for projects to be adaptive to specific places and cultures, utilizing their unique strengths and needs. One such initiative coordinates fishing gear clean-ups by the fishermen themselves: they search for and recover lost gear, then sell it back to the owners for a discounted price. The solution is tailored to the community and empowers individuals to connect their own livelihoods to the larger issue.
The relationship between consumer demand and source prevention is also critical. Kelly McBee of Californians Against Waste pointed out that politicians will only support policies that they are confident the majority of voters want to see move forward. Another panelist shared a story of stainless steel straws ordered in bulk for a plastics awareness event. When she opened the box, she found each straw individually wrapped in plastic. She then contacted the producer, who turned out to be quite receptive to her feedback. In other words, industries need a clear message from consumers about what they value and how they want to spend their dollars.
The group was unified in calling for a cultural shift in perceptions of plastic, and resulting changes in human behavior. Society needs to begin viewing plastic as “dirty,” a source of carbon emissions and ocean pollution, as opposed to an invisible convenience. Dr. Pinar Yoldas of the UC San Diego Visual Arts Department is facilitating this type of awareness through plastic-inspired art exhibits. She asked the question, “what would life look like if it were to evolve out of the primordial soup of our current plastic-filled ocean?” The answers she created include gulls with feathers stained Pantone red, turtles shimmering with balloon fragments in their shells, and digestive systems engineered to break down plastics. She emphasized that culture changes through cultural institutions, so we need institutions like art museums as allies in the fight against plastic pollution.
The diversity of methods and arenas in which these organizations are tackling plastic pollution are achieving integration without duplication, and serving to complement one another. Pew Charitable Trusts is working to provide an open source data tool that can inform the management plans being adapted for specific locations by NGOs like WWF. Surfrider Foundation has developed an eco-label for restaurants that is becoming more in-demand as public engagement increases from the education and outreach efforts of projects like the City of San Diego’s Zero Waste Efforts.
When asked what they would do if they could tackle one aspect of the plastics problem with certain success, the majority of panelists responded that they would empower individuals to make the connection between their own choices and the aggregate consequences of those behaviors. An audience member told the story of visiting a remote area in South America where local women were depositing trash into the river near their village. When she asked what they were doing, the women replied, “Don’t worry, you won’t see it later!” Panelists agreed that this was an apt analogy for the situation in most places and cultures, and that greater individual responsibility would have powerful, cascading consequences for improving ocean health.
The integrated efforts of these experts and organizations are needed to tackle a complex, multi-faceted issue that is deeply embedded in our everyday lives. Shifting the ways we behave, make choices, and connect to our role as part of the natural environment will enable us to become a more productive and positively contributing element within it.
Recordings of each public event can be found at the following links:
Chrissy is a Masters student in the Marine Biodiversity and Conservation program at Scripps.