Plastics Industry Knew About Ocean Pollution Long Time Ago

The scientific community has reported plastic ocean pollution to be an issue for quite some time now, although for laymen is becoming a visible problem in recent years. This important matter is the point of analysis in a report by The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

As the problem of marine plastic pollution gets greater public attention “it is critical to start investigating what industry actors —including manufacturers of plastic resins and the fossil fuel companies supplying them with chemical feedstocks— have known about this problem and for how long.”

Steven Feit, lead study author and an attorney for CIEL, said in a press release:

“Unfortunately, the answer to both when the plastic industry knew their products would contribute to massive public harms and what they did with that information suggests they followed Big Oil’s playbook on climate change: deny, confuse, and fight regulation and effective solutions.”

The impacts on the environment from the plastic pollution of the ocean lie in the fact that plastics persist very long time in the environment, and only break up into smaller pieces finding their way into fish and other aquatic organisms accumulating into their body tissue as time passes.  

What happens to plastics littered in the sea or transported there by continental water runoff is well documented. Take for example the work of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in a report entitled “Our Oceans: A Plastic Soup”

At the heart of this controversy is a two-fold argument, 1)  how this waste is publicly handled and 2) how it is industrially managed. On one hand is the inert chemical nature of plastic,  which all around the world is classified as an urban solid residue, normally required by regulation to be collected from street garbage bins and disposed at municipal landfills without further treatment. These ineffective methods at best would control a low percentage of plastics, the rest just being left to be carried by water and wind elsewhere.

On the other hand industry, and foremost petrochemical industry is required to handle all wastes in a responsible manner in compliance with laws and regulation requirements built into their environmental management systems, which would ultimately guarantee that this waste would go from their point of generation to its final disposal. In the case of plastics, far more stringent regulation would be needed at industrial levels to provide for recycling and elimination at the source, not to mention the gradual replacing of certain plastics products for biodegradable ones at commercial levels.  These aspects have been addressed by NGO´s and normalization agencies, such as the International Standardization Organization (ISO) and others, for the industry in general to have greener procedures and reputation, and product public acceptance.

It does not come as a surprise the boundaries set by the industrial sector for waste management responsibilities, as the following excerpt from the report states: “The plastics industry has usually taken two parallel positions on the question of marine waste. First, it claims that it is only responsible for plastic resin pellets and flakes because end products are out of the industry’s control. Second, it promotes reuse, recycling, and proper waste management.”

Last but not least is marine transportation waste handling, regulated by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol). However, its effectiveness lies in the responsibility and compliance plans of the carriers and most of the auditing is done at ports by port authorities, so it is left to thinking how are controls implemented in the open ocean.

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