In Defense of Plastic Bag Bans

Following is a response piece to Marc Gunther’s recent article, In Defense of the Plastic Bag.

Full disclosure: I’m a journalist turned activist who works for a nonprofit called The 5 Gyres Institute founded by Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins to research, educate and act on issues pertaining to plastic and chemical pollution in the marine environment as well as the watersheds that feed them. As 5 Gyres’ Policy Director, I have worked tirelessly on chemical, plastic bottle and bag bans across the country. It is my goal to take an objective view of the facts, investigating industry and Gunther’s claims in order to ultimately inform the positions of educators, stakeholders and policymakers.

As a surfer, I started noticing plastic everywhere on every beach in the world where I traveled about ten years ago. It bothered me. As I became more versed on the subject of maritime plastic pollution, I was invited by 5 Gyres to participate in a research voyage to The North Atlantic Gyre, and after seeing what I saw out there, firsthand, over 1,000 miles from land, I quit my job at a media company and started working on plastic pollution issues full time.

Since that voyage, I’ve sailed across two other oceanic gyres now, the South Atlantic and the South Pacific, witnessing the same pollution in two other oceans. It is exceptionally sad and difficult to explain what plastic pollution in a gyre looks like, but when you see plastic films floating on the surface, two weeks from land under full sail, it starts to give you the cosmic heebie-geebies.

What’s at issue is this:

Plastic does not biodegrade in a meaningful if even comprehensible timeframe. Thus, some portion of it accumulates in the environment. The more we produce, consume, and recycle plastics, the more plastic will come into the world and accumulate in landfills, on land, in rivers, and the sea. Plastics at sea concentrate incredibly dangerous chemicals, fish eat plastic, and we eat fish.

It’s really that simple. This is why we care. It sure as hell isn’t for the paycheck.

The Truth About Texas-Sized Garbage Patches

The garbage patch in the North Pacific isn’t the size of Texas, but what Gunther suggests in his piece about the activist role in perpetuating that myth isn’t accurate either. Though Angelique White’s assessment is right, she’s not quoting her own data to debunk the myth she’s talking about (let alone the data from the cruise she was on). What’s interesting is that environmentalists were blamed for perpetuating the Lonestar State garbage island myth. White issued a press release through Oregon State University meant to debunk the Texas myth. We the environmentalists, applaud this effort. We can’t win with money, so we better have bulletproof facts on our side. What I take issue with is Gunther’s snarky tone, where he names The Surfrider Foundation and Heal The Bay as environmental groups spreading misinformation. In Gunther’s piece, he copies the line from the press release verbatim: “participated in one of the few expeditions solely aimed at understanding the abundance of plastic debris.”

What’s interesting is the title of the press release: “Garbage Patch Not Nearly As Big As Media Portrayed.” What’s ironic is that the press release is unequivocally calling his profession out, not mine. So, in the spirit of Gunther’s eye-for-an-eye tactic, is it fair for me to say that the media is responsible for spreading misinformation about the efficacy of plastic bag recycling? I’d say that’s accurate.

If you’re curious about the Texas thing, read SeaPlex’s Miriam Goldstein’s excellent analysis, here.

But let’s talk about what we do know, rather than beat up on each other and rely on bad journalism and skewed interpretations of press releases for our facts. After three expeditions in the last year, the 5 Gyres Institute has confirmed its suspicions that plastic pollution exists in all major gyres; we will soon be publishing data on plastic pollution density in the South Atlantic and South Pacific gyre.

To date, the largest data set that exists regarding plastic pollution in any area of the ocean is published by SEA Education, which documents 22 years of ocean surface sampling in the North Atlantic and Caribbean, including the western part of the North Atlantic Gyre. The largest concentration of plastics ever recorded is 580,000 .15 grams of plastic particles per square kilometer which is equal to 87 kilograms (or roughly 191 pounds).

Now, SEA’s data set, like almost all data sets on the subject, account only for the plastic that floats. If you talk to scientists about the issue casually, they tend to believe that the density of plastic in the ocean is much higher than their data suggests and that much more research is needed to accurately portray how much plastic is in the ocean, if that’s even possible. What scientists know is that there are 7 billion people on earth addicted to plastic and no matter where they look, even in the most remote of places, they find a plastic stain. When I spoke with Kara Lavender Law from SEA Education this spring about her massive data set, which is the envy of many scientists within this community, she stated plainly that it’s still a very small snapshot.

So How Much Is Out There?

Everyone wants to know that answer to this question. According the scientific literature, the best guess so far comes from a report by Columbia University (download -- PDF) that takes all of the major existing data sets, mixes them with a bit of computer modeling and estimates the ocean surface area of all five major gyres. That number is just shy of 16 million square kilometers, which gives us an estimate of 73,878,000 pounds of plastic within the border of the gyres.

But here’s another problem. We’re only talking about the gyres. There are 315 million square kilometers of ocean surface on planet earth. From firsthand experience on three research expeditions that have sampled inside and outside the elusive borders of the gyres, I can say this, anecdotally: The gyres do concentrate plastic, but plastic is not just within the gyre borders, it’s everywhere. Plastic in the ocean varies in density, but not frequency. Ninety-nine out of 100 times you sample, you’ll find plastic, even if you’re just a few miles out to sea. So what’s in the other 300 million square kilometers of ocean that comprises 65% of the earth’s surface? Answer: We don’t know. Yikes.

Next Page: Are there plastic bags in gyres?