Hey guys. A quick message for the new year, with some cool news (like: we’re on Spotify!), and some changes for the future. We tell you all about it!
The Commission has just released the first ever Europe wide strategy on plastic. This text lays out the vision for tackling plastic pollution, with its main aims to reduce disposable plastic use, limit micro-plastic use, and make manufacturing packaging fully recyclable by 2030. Big news. But is it bold and ambitious, or more politics as usual?
In this episode, we review and discuss the content of this strategy together with Coordinator of Rethink Plastic, Delphine Lévi Alvarés. Big topics on the table include: the absence of clear target for recyclable packaging, possible upcoming legislation on single-use plastics, how to prevent unintentional microplastics, possible oxoplastics ban, and the plastic tax surprise.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Camille Duran [CD]: Eleen before we start: Last time I met with Paul Rose,
Eleen Murphy [EM]: From the Guns N’ Roses?
CD: No that’s Axel Rose! Paul Rose is the National Geographic explorer & TV Presenter from the UK…
EM: Ah yes, you never know with you…. Great, what did he tell you?
CD: I asked him what’s the one plastic story that stands out for him. Have a listen.
Paul Rose: For me it’s the Arctic. I know the Arctic very well. I used to go out there, and when you’re on an Arctic beach, it’s a funny old place even in summer, because the ice – the fast ice, as they call it – is stuck to the land. But you can have a bit of trouble working out where the sea begins and the land ends and where you are on the tidal cracks, and are you going to fall in the sea and everything! And you’d never see any plastic, because the ice edge was so far out there, even when the ice is loose it creates a massive barrier around the arctic. We’d never see any plastic, because it would come up and butt against the ice edge. We didn’t know that at the time, but it was.
But now with climate change, all that ice around all those islands is gone in the summer. So the beaches are stone, pebbly and rocky beaches. And what’s on them? Plastic, of all kinds. So that’s a real shocker for me, to see that. You know, we sort of get used to seeing it on a beach in temperate zones, but to find that in the Arctic…man, that’s a killer. You know? That hurts me.
CD: Yeah that’s just to remind us how big and how urgent the plastic issue really is.
EM: In case any listener is still in doubt.
CD: Direct transition: the EU Commission just released its plastic strategy, we started to talk about it in the previous episode.
EM: Anything ambitious?
CD: That’s what we are going to talk about in today’s episode: what can we expect from the EU exactly?
EM: Good question.
CD: First V.P. Timmermans and V.P. Katainen dropped in on the Parliament for the announcement and addressing a couple of questions.
CD: Well, I don’t think anyone expected bold moves. This Commission is entering the last part of their mandate, they say they have budget limitations and even if Timmermans’ introductory speeches show conviction & determination, we are going to need a lot more than what is outlined in the text.
But… some interesting developments!
EM: Tell me more…
CD: I unpacked the content of the plastic strategy with an organisation that is very active in this debate and which I knew would be one hundred percent aligned with the interests of the Planet and communities worldwide.
EM: Like aligned for real, you mean.
CD: Right, it’s a coalition of NGOs that is following the plastic debate at the European level. They are called Rethink Plastic and I debriefed with their Coordinator, Delphine Lévi Alvarés.
EM: Let’s hear it!
CD: Hello Delphine, are you there?
Delphine Lévi Alvarés [DLA]: Yes I’m here!
CD: Thanks for making some time. It’s an important week; we’re going to about the plastic strategy and what’s in the text. Can you first tell us about the purpose of this plastic strategy. What was expected?
DLA: So, it’s a document where the European Commission lays out their vision for tackling plastic pollution in the future. It’s an action plan more than anything else, it’s not a binding document.
CD: At Rethink Plastic, what is the overall feeling of your group after the release of this plastic strategy?
DLA: The overall feeling of our group is that it’s quite a positive strategy. It’s not complete: there are always things to improve, but it’s a good declaration of intention from the Commission, and now what we want to see is action.
CD: I bet. I suggest we just dive in: I want to talk about a few of the subtopics that the strategy covers. Do you feel that there’s one theme in particular that has been dominating the discussion, or has it been an even mix of themes – when it comes to, you know, microplastics, oxo-degradables, single use, recyclability, and so on?
DLA: I think it’s been a pretty balanced debate. A lot of topics have been discussed during the year and a half that has preceded the publication of this strategy. A lot of focus was put at the beginning on recycling, and the role of the Coalition and other environmental NGOs was really to stress the need for reduction. The topic of single use plastics in the latest month has been occupying the scene, and we are quite happy to see that the Commission is already taking a step and consulting European citizens and stakeholders on what kind of legislative measures we could implement at the E.U. or national level to reduce single-use plastic items.
CD: Yes and let’s start with that theme then on single use plastics. A directive that was mentioned a couple of times was the single-use plastic bag directive, which was very successful in the countries that implemented it. I think you are pushing for replicating that directive for other single-use plastic items?
DLA: Yeah, we could imagine the same kind of mechanism for other single-use plastic items like [indistinguishable], disposable cups, lids and straws, and cutlery…
CD: Service wear?
DLA: Yeah, service wear, exactly.
CD: What do you expect on the single-use plastics front in the year to come?
DLA: We expect legislative proposals to be tabled by the Commission, and discussed by the European Parliament and the Council. That should come before summer, because you probably know that it’s the last active year of this Commission, because next year we’ll have the European Elections. And we will have a new Commission taking over in September next year. So it’s the closing down of the mandate of this Commission and I think they want to finish with a solid legacy. I hope that they want to finish with a solid legacy on single-use plastics.
CD: Okay. moving to microplastics now. So, those are the pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters, I think, that are found in the environment because they were intentionally added to products, like cosmetics, detergents, or paint. Intentionally added, by opposition to the microplastics resulting from the degradation of macroplastics. So there’s this sort of intentional versus unintentional debate, which I think is interesting. What are your takeaways on this chapter?
DLA: On this chapter we are welcoming the step taken by the Commission to ban them, and to ban them for a wide variety of products – not only cosmetics, which was the low-hanging fruit in a way. So now the scope is open, and it’s going to be dealt under a very technical process called Rich (nothing to do with money). And it’s going to look at the different kind of products in which we have intentionally added microplastics.
CD: So it covers only intentionally added microplastics? How about the other side of the problem: the microplastics that are in tire dust, in textile microfibres and so on?
DLA: Yeah, so for these ones it’s going to be about working at the product level: how do we improve the products themselves to prevent the release of microplastics or microfibres into the environment. In the case of textiles, it could be also how do we improve the washing machine and wastewater treatment systems so that we prevent the release of these microfibres. So for all of these topics that are more recent, and for which there are no silver bullets, there are discussions amongst the stakeholders, and the Commission is planning some research on this to find appropriate measures to prevent them.
CD: Okay. Oxo-degradable plastic, which is also quite a technical area. It’s a type of plastic that is designed to break down into small pieces that most often remain in the environment later on. I think something happened there as well?
DLA: For oxo-plastics, we got a good signal from the Commission about their intention to restrict their use under the Rich process again – the same process as the one that is going to regulate microplastics. And here it’s real good news because these plastics have been seriously damaging the environment and the recycling system as well, and a ban was urgently needed. We don’t know how long it’s going to take, and we don’t know if it’s going to be a full ban or only restricting the use in certain sectors, but we’re going to engage in this process and make sure it goes in the direction that we want. That is to say, a full ban.
CD: One more thing I wanted to talk about. A few days ago, the Commissioner for Budget raised an interesting idea around an E.U. plastic tax – a European-wide plastic tax. It was a little bit of a surprise, no?
DLA: It was! It was a surprise, yeah. I think it was a surprise as much for the NGOs as it was for the people in the Commission working on the plastic strategy. And everybody asked us what our opinion was, and I think it’s a very good question. We are in general in favour of using any economic mechanisms to reduce plastics, in particular single-use plastic and over-packaging. On this tax specifically, we are cautiously optimistic. One thing is sure, that we definitely need more information about what he had in mind and how it could be turned into something operational at the E.U. level. And for us, this tax should really be designed to drive-down the use of single-use plastics and over-packaging in general, rather than being primarily a source of income for the E.U.
CD: Right. And Jyrki Katainen was asked was asked about this, after the presentation…let’s have a listen.
Jyrki Katainen: In a way one could say that it would be a good way to create our own resources for the E.U. because at the same time while we are taxing, it addresses our environmental objectives. But the better plastic strategy implementation we have, the less income we can collect. This is another side of the coin. Second point, I have been working with environmental taxes, and I like them if they are done well. But we have not yet found a way to introduce a European-wide plastic tax. As I said in my introductory remark, we are ready to look at fiscal means or fiscal solutions for incentivising recycling or reducing plastics, especially single-use plastics. But it’s too early to promise anything. Some of our member states have used tax measures or fiscal measures to reduce single-use plastic bags, so it has functioned well on the national level. So in this same spirit, we will look at all the opportunities, but whether we manage to find a well-functioning, European-wide tax on plastic…I have my doubts.
CD: So yeah, he was not super comfortable about this idea, but probably there’s some discussion going on backstage. Any closing words? What’s next for you guys?
DLA: Work, work, work. We need to ensure that everything that is in this strategy is turned into action – and action aiming at tackling plastic pollution and at operating the changes in the system we need to tackle plastic pollution in the future, in Europe and globally. So most of our key topics were addressed, and were more or less in line with what we wanted to see in the strategy, but we are aware that there are a lot more topics that need to be addressed to really tackle plastic pollution. And that some areas were not covered enough – like chemicals and toxics in plastics. This is a key area if you want to build trust in the recycled material market in the future, and make sure that we use more recycled plastics than virgin plastic. It will have to be addressed soon.
CD: Thank you for being with us!
DLA: Thank you for inviting us!
EM: Interesting. I see what you meant earlier. There seems to be a lot of “intentions to investigate”, or, “develop a measure to…” but nothing that bites hard enough.
CD: Yes I mean, it’s going in the right direction. Well hey, I hope it’s going in the right direction, right? Back to what we were saying in the previous episode about making history, the small stuff versus the real stuff, passing on the baby to the next Commission, etc. I don’t think anyone in this Commission will be remembered as someone who drastically changed the game.
EM: More like E.U. politics as usual?
EM: Okay, what’s next?
CD: What’s next? Well we keep up the fight! the problem is not going to solve itself and every single joule of energy we can mobilise is vital. Every gram of plastic we can avoid consuming, reuse or in last resort send to recycling
EM: True recycling-
CD: -Indeed, is a step in the right direction.
EM: Yeah but who else can we mobilise? Who are the people or organisations that have real leverage in the story?
CD: Uh…industry you mean?
EM: I don’t know…. Yeah, like, a company like Procter & Gamble puts X billion products on the market everyday, what are they doing? And the oil industry? Isn’t plastic production their new brainchild now since they know that oil for fuel is going to disappear eventually?
CD: Shhhh Eleen, be careful, you’re going to get us in trouble. We can tell the truth but not too loud. Because you’re putting your finger on the real problem here.
EM: Yeah but it feels no one wants to talk about this?!
CD: Should we?
EM: Aren’t we supposed to go to the root of the issues we investigate?
CD: Okay,, so we should go and see what industry has to say then.
EM: I think we should
CD: Can we try to do this with an open mind and no preconceived ideas?
EM: No preconceived ideas? You mean as if our industry and our societies’ economic model are not the real root cause of all this?
CD: I mean, like trying to understand how those guys are thinking, for real, without judgement. Then we let our listeners draw their own conclusions.
EM: Sure! But you’re going to need to double up on meditation.
CD: What do you mean?
EM: It’s going to be way too tempting for you to make spicy comments.
CD: No, I’ll be fine. It’s part of the game, we need to be open to all perspectives out there. We cannot say we know better why and how, just like this.
EM: Whew! I really feel like we’re not done solving all this.
CD: But we are patient, Eleen. Good things take time.
EM: Yes! And to all our listeners: you should know this series is going to keep unfolding during the year, sometimes other themes will be published in between,
CD: We publish when we have something solid.
EM: Yes, so stay tuned – hopefully we can help you look at all this in a new way.
CD: We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration and hopefully less plastic. Keep up the good work in the meantime!
Today we get practical. Earlier in the series we clarified the role of asset owners in helping us stay below the 2 degree goal of the Paris Agreement, and talked about how they should benchmark the performance of their investment portfolios. But how does this work in practice? Good news: Models and tools are under way and some of the biggest EU asset owners have accepted to disclose their data and put their equity portfolio to the test bench.
The tool we discuss is an assessment on forward-looking scenario-based metrics conducted by WWF and the 2° Investing Initiative in 2017. We talk to asset owners who have been through the exercise and discuss challenges to overcome, the TCFD recommendations released earlier this year and review what’s coming up in 2018. Happy listening!
• Magnus Billing, Alecta
• Andreas Stang, PFA
• Paddy Arber, Aviva
• Sebastien Godinot, WWF
Paul Simpson was taken from The Financial Stability Board ‘s Taskforce on Climate Related Disclosures, Paul Simpson, CEO, CDP [Video]
Recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures Final Report Introduction – Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures [Report]
Recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures Final Report – Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures [Report]
MADE POSSIBLE BY:
|WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.|
Produced by Camille Duran
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy
Published by Eleen Murphy
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
We’ve got some updates to share: new channels for you to check out and some new content too. Let us fill you in!
China doesn’t want our plastic waste anymore. This sent a shockwave throughout the plastic recycling industry and left all of us wondering: where do we go from here? Will new markets open up, or will we (finally) have to deal with our own problems at home? Will the EU Plastic Strategy save us?
In this episode, we discuss the current thinking and upcoming trends on this issue. It’s challenging. We also debrief on the recent live Talk Show in Brussels about European plastics, global markets & China, and set the stage for our next episode where we dive even deeper.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Eleen Murphy [EM]: Are we in China yet?
Camille Duran [CD]: Hong Kong actually.
EM: Ah okay. Maybe we should remind our listeners how we got here, while the crew throws the anchor?
CD: Sure. In episode four and five of this series about ocean plastic, we reviewed what happens to post-consumer plastic, after you put it into the recycling bin.
EM: We did some GPS tracking internationally to follow shipments and better understand where – and in what conditions – plastic scraps are taken care of.
CD: Not sure you want to know really, but if you do, take it from episode four.
EM: We clarified a fundamental idea: The plastic that’s in the ocean comes from the western world too.
CD: even if much of it gets into the ocean from just a few asian countries.
EM: Yes, a lot of the plastic disposed of in those countries is plastic that we in the west exported there in the first place.
CD: Basically the whole plastic scraps market is…
EM: A race to the bottom.
CD: A race to the bottom.
EM: And we left it at?
CD: Waking the dragon.
EM: Right, it’s getting hot.
CD: Is it really?
EM: Well if I understand correctly what you told us, China, which imports more than 60% of the world’s plastic scraps –
CD: – which we don’t want to deal with at home…
EM: – has decided to ban those low-value imports as of January 1st, 2018. In other words very soon.
CD: Millions of tons of low-grade plastics are going to be blocked by Chinese authorities starting now, pretty much.
EM: Big shake on recycling markets.
CD: Big, big shake.
CD: Conclusion: you have one more plastic Christmas to go, and then, we have to stop sending our trash plastic to China. Okay?
EM: What happens after Christmas?
CD: Well, there is New Year’s Eve, and then usually people go back to work?
EM: No, I’m talking about plastic…
CD: Ah yeah, right… Well that’s what we are going to discuss today. What is the future of plastic scrap markets?
EM: And what is the right thing to do!
CD: [Laughs] The right thing to do?
CD: Do you think people care about what’s the right thing to do?
EM: Uh…I think some people, yes!
CD: [Laughs more]. Okay, okay, we’ll talk about what’s the right thing to do, in case anyone cares.
EM: Our listeners care about the right thing to do, I’m sure!
CD: Okay, okay, I know, I know. Actually I should say: if you are not here to do the right thing, better go live on Planet Mars, I think there is an expedition leaving soon.
EM: We can get you a ticket.
CD: Yes, we’ll pay for it actually.
EM: ok, back to the dragon.
EUROPE REACTS TO PLASTIC WASTE BAN – NEW MARKETS ON THE HORIZON?
CD: So you know we had a live talkshow last week in Brussels where we talked about just this. European plastics, global markets & China.
EM: Yes! Tell us about it, who was there?
CD: A nice mix of people that are dealing with the issue first-hand. It was co-hosted by the Rethink Plastic Alliance, which represents the voice of European NGOs in the plastic debate, and Plastic Recyclers Europe, which represents a large group of European recyclers – actual recyclers, those who operate infrastructure and produce secondary raw materials.
EM: Oh so not the brokers who trade materials on global markets?
CD: No. They were in the room as well, but yeah, it’s another culture and other business objectives.
EM: This is good to clarify actually. The recycler’s objective is to develop domestic capabilities for plastic recycling. The brokers are more interested in finding destination markets for materials, wherever they are… and whatever happens next.
CD: Complete different job and mission.
CD: We also had representatives from Asia, who were in Brussels that day to highlight the impact of European Plastic on Asian Waste Management, and so they passed by the talk show to share a few points. Froilan Grate, Dharmesh Shah…. You know who else was there?
EM: Martin Bourque?
CD: Yes, our recycler turned spy, from our previous episode. And his Chinese contact Liwen Chen. She is an activist & researcher, the one who went on site to inspect the plastic final destination that Martin’s GPS tracker revealed.
EM: Wow, what a panel!
CD: It’s not over. I won’t name them all but worth noticing that a representative from the European Commission was here as well – Anna Ablazevica Policy Officer at the DG GROW – they cover Internal Markets, SMEs, Industry, Entrepreneurship etc.
CD: And Nadine de Greef from FEAD, which is the federation representing the waste management industry in Europe. So yeah, it was good.
CD: So I am not going to redo the whole talkshow here but try to give you the highlights.
EM: Yes and we will post the link to the full briefing. The session was livestreamed and documented, so look for the link in the episode notes.
CD: So there was some discussion about why this ban is happening, did we see it coming bla-bla-bla. And some saw it coming from far (a few recyclers for instance), and some didn’t.
EM: Like the Commission.
CD: Right, and if you don’t see that kind of shake coming, you really can’t adjust in a timely manner.
EM: I see.
CD: Which takes us to the discussion of what is going to happen.
EM: What is going to happen if more than 60% of the market for low-grade plastic disappears?
CD: Well is it going to disappear? or shift to somewhere else?
EM: Oh, you mean that plastic will go to other countries instead?
CD: It’s difficult to predict exactly what is going to happen, and in what amounts but let me put it like this:
Some are worried this low-grade plastic that has no value what so ever is going to go to other asian countries, where the processing standards are often lower than they are in China.
CD: Yes, except for Malaysia maybe. But yeah, that’s a concern. Actually there are many Chinese families that are already moving away to set up shop in bordering countries. And I heard a few times that Africa is going to be the next destination for the trash. Countries like Nigeria seem to be ramping up as a destination for plastic scraps.
CD: Now let’s be clear, no country can take what China was taking in quantity. Far from it.
CD: So yes, probably a good part will spread on new markets.
EM: And the rest?
CD: And the rest is probably going to be dealt with in Europe.
EM: What do you mean?
CD: [Coughing] Incinerated.
CD: [Coughing] Burnt.
EM: Ohh, so we’re going to burn what we can’t export…
CD: Yes, our good friends the cement kilns and waste to energy plants may have a couple of years more work before we can close them down.
EM: Well, at least this way we will be breathing our own plastic from the air of our own cities, instead of sending our trash around…
CD: Yeah, some of it at least. Martin who runs a recycling program in California says that the price per tonne he has to pay to export it is reaching the price of landfilling it in California.
EM: So maybe that’s going to force us to go from “not in my backyard” to “in my backyard?”
CD: At least for a part of the stream.
EM: Okay so in the next couple of years, some will probably reach new markets, and some will probably be burned here in Europe?
CD: Some millions of tonnes, yes.
EM: Ouf. Hey, what is the likeliness that other Asian countries will follow the Chinese policy, and ban plastic scrap imports too?
CD: It is a possible scenario and some even call it an upcoming trend. Difficult to say at this point, but yeah, it could happen.
EM: And so then what?
CD: So if all those contries start to refuse all this low grade plastic coming from Europe and the U.S….I let you imagine.
EM: We’d finally have to deal with our own sh*t at home!
CD: You mean like internalising the impact and cost of our plastic? [Laughs].
EM: It is really that far fetched? I mean, isn’t the EU setting up it’s plastic strategy at the moment? This Chinese ban is a huge opportunity in the long term. Perfect timing for integrating ambitious measures that avoid this low-grade plastic being put on the market in the first place!!!
CD: Haha, Eleen, you’re funny. Okay. So you want to talk about the EU Plastic Strategy, right?
EU PLASTIC STRATEGY AND LEGACY BUILDING – WE’RE TIRED OF THE SMALL STUFF
CD: Sorry to spoil it, but we are not talking about a weapon that could kill a dragon just yet.
EM: Tell me more.
CD: Let’s bring our container ship back to Europe then.
EM: Can we take the Suez canal this time? It’s shorter.
CD: Not afraid of pirates?
EM: I am one of them, remember?
CD: Ah yeah, how do you do it again?
CD: Ah yeah right. Back to Europe then.
CD: Ok, so those of you who have been following our series on the Circular Economy know that the European institutions are currently cooking a Circular Economy policy package which is supposed to take us to a resource efficient Europe.
EM: Yes, we have seven episodes about this.
CD: Now as part of that process, it was announced that the Commission would come up with a Plastic Strategy by the end of the year, to lead the way, bla-bla-bla.
CD: And it’s a process where industry and brands are perceived as very influential, I should say?
EM: Hm, and why do you say that?
CD: There was several versions of the draft that were leaked over the last few weeks, and you can see the evolution of the text.
EM: Evolution in what direction?
CD: Well, there are some measures that are being weakened as time goes by.
EM: Measures like what?
CD: We are going to talk about it, it’s a bit delicate. But first…But first:
Something that struck me many times since I follow this discussion of circular economy, plastics and change in general.
EM: Oh no, i know you, you’re warming up for a punchline somewhere…
CD: Have you ever thought about your legacy, Eleen?
EM: I’ve never thought about it ever in my entire life, Camille.
CD: Really? How you will be remembered, what trace you left on society, on the planet, what was your impact?
EM: Um, maybe I should think more about this, yeah.
CD: You’re doing great by the way.
EM: Heh. Where do you want to go here?
CD: Some people care about their legacy more than others. But politicians and brands do care. Very much.
EM: That’s for sure.
CD: Brands care because it is directly connected to their equity, to their value on markets and to their survival even. Most politicians care about their legacy too. It is the fuel for a political career.
CD: Ask yourself: who do you remember a few years down the road?
EM: Oh no…he’s going to transform, I just know it… Sorry guys, this happens sometimes.
CD [Transformed]: Ask yourself: who do you remember a few years down the road?
The people who did the small stuff, the shy policies, the soft measures that do not make any waves? The incremental game that no one wins in the end?
Or the people and brands who got on their horses, jumping ahead of the curve, those who drive change without fear, the real innovators that make the world measurably better?
EM: The second one…?
CD [Transformed]: Which one:
The people and brands who are on the defence serving consumers and voters the bullsh*t that everyone can smell from kilometres away? Playing the clock, the mandate, the quarterly results?
Or the people and brands who show real passion, conviction and who dare attacking a problem at the source. Even when it’s risky, when it’s early, when others are still talking?
EM: The second one again. The real problem solvers!
CD [Transformed]: That’s who you remember. You want to be the first-mover into a future that’s already there. You want to lead and inspire, not cheat and conspire. You want to go beyond intentions. Beyond just a vision. Leave the small stuff to others. You’re here for what really matters. You want to be the one people talk about, or tomorrow you’ll be out.
CD [Transformed]: Once and for all. The one people look up to because you have big ba- um…
EM: Big ideas!?!
EM: Wow, are you back? You okay? What was that?
CD: Yeah, you get the point. We are tired of the small stuff.
EM: I feel you. So that’s your introduction to the EU Plastic Strategy chapter?
CD: That’s my introduction to being a human being on Planet Earth. We deal with change everyday.
EM: So this applies to the debate on plastics.
CD: I think so. And that is what we are going to cover in next episode. What is the small stuff, what is the ambitious stuff we can hope for? Where will we fall, and how do we go from there?
EM: What legacy is this Commission going to leave behind? Coming soon on Green Exchange.
CD: Share the podcast with your friends and colleagues. We are going to start talking about lifestyle, movie stars, and real solutions to the ocean plastic problem.
EM: You know where to find us!
CD: We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration – and legacy checks. Keep up the good work in the meantime.
Martin Bourque was suspicious about where the plastic from his recycling facility in California was going. He put a tracking device into a plastic bale and tracked it all the way across the world to a rural recycling facility in China. What did he find there? This is part two of Martin’s story, and it’s an eye-opener.
This episode brings up an important point: this is not just an American story – we share some facts from Europe that show we’re in this too. There is way too much plastic being produced that nobody wants. We’re paying to get rid of it, and the price is way too high.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Camille Duran [CD]: Hey Eleen, you got your cup of coffee?
Eleen Murphy [EM]: Just tea actually.
CD: Oh you don’t drink coffee?
EM: No, I don’t like coffee. Strange fact!
CD: Alright. So in previous episode we started a story that we did not finish.
EM: Yes, because you like cliffhangers!
CD: Everyone loves cliffhangers!
EM: Hmm, I don’t know. They make me arrrghh! Hulk smash!
CD: Woah, okay…
EM: I’ve been watching too many Marvel movies, sorry…
CD: Okay, just hold on a few more minutes. For those of you joining us just now, you probably want to rewind a little bit to the previous episode.
EM: Episode four.
CD: So you can fully understand what we’ll talk about today.
EM: At this point in the series, we are talking to Martin Bourque who is telling us a story we got in exclusivity.
CD: Martin runs a collection service for recyclables in Berkeley California. His facility is sorting the materials collected from residents and sending them to recycling markets.
EM: He was worried lately because he didn’t know where his plastic was going to end up.
CD: Berkeley residents trust that their plastic is going to be recycled in proper conditions.
EM: Which no one is really sure about lately.
CD: So he put a GPS tracking device in one plastic bale – you know those big cubes of compressed plastic – to see where it would end up.
EM: And here we are, right?
CD: Yes pretty much. The shipment had disappeared from the map two weeks ago.
EM: The tracking device could not pick up any signal,
CD: Or there was a technical problem, battery was dead or device broken, couldn’t really know.
Martin Bourque [MB]: But suddenly, one day – bingo! It’s in Hong Kong.
EM: Hong Kong.
CD: Kind of expected, no? But really, looking at recycling markets after the crash in 2015, every thing was possible. But yeah, Hong Kong.
MB: And there it is. And clearly at this point it’s picking up a cell signal because it’s got to still be in the shipping container. So it can’t see the sky, it can’t see a satellite, so it’s picking up a cell signal in Hong Kong. [It took] about two weeks to get there. And it sat in that port for a few days, and then it went up the South China sea, into the mainland of China to another port.
CD: I pause here just to mention it’s quite common for containers to go through different ports before destination, or to be brokered on the way. That’s why the data from the customs or whatever you can get from harbours is usually not very telling.
EM: Well I would disagree with that, you can still draw a few conclusions.
CD: You have found something! I know you.
EM: Haha..well, let’s just say I put my hand on three years of plastic export data in a European port.
CD: Oh yeah? Which one?
EM: I don’t really want to tell, I am not sure it’s public information.
CD: North or South?
CD: Okay, there are two main-
EM: No, no, no. Stop. I’m not going to tell you.
CD: Okay. One port in Benelux. What does it say?
EM: It shows a breakdown per type of plastic scrap per destination port, and exact amounts that were shipped each year.
CD: And how much?
EM: Let’s finish Martin’s story first maybe?
EM: Haha. Hey, now you know how I feel!
CD: So where were we?
EM: South China sea after the first stop in Hong Kong.
CD: Ah yes.
MB: And then we could track it and it went to a few other locations: it went to a primary sorting facility, and at this point we’re pretty sure it came out of the sea container.
EM: How do they know the bale came out of the container?
CD: Well, from the GPS location they can go on Google Maps and see in satellite view what the area looks like…
EM: Ah, smart.
MB: We could see that there were sea containers, or shipping containers, at this facility. And we could also see from the mapping, from the satellite imagery, that there were bales of plastic in a yard. But then from that place it went to another location-
EM: Another location?
MB: – and probably went as open bales or maybe they had even cracked open the bales and started to sort. And it moved from there to a secondary facility where it finally died, and I don’t know if it died because of the battery, or because they dismantled it, or somebody found it and they crushed it – we just don’t know.
EM: So at this point we have no tracking device anymore.
CD: The device is dead.
CD: But, luckily it seems like this was the final destination!
EM: Tell me more!
INFORMAL RECYCLING FACILITIES TAKING OUR PLASTIC WASTE
MB: So it’s in Southern China, and in a rural community in – not a backyard facility but a pretty informal sector industrial area in a rural community. So there’s lots of little sheds and shacks…
CD: So not crazy rural, not crazy industrial,
EM: But informal?
EM: And that’s all you can see from the imagery, right?
CD: Yes, but it’s not over…
MB: So we then connected with some partners through the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and a colleague of our s who is a specialist on plastics in China went to visit the facility. But this was months later when she got there. It was very interesting; she got photos of the location and got to talk to people there.
MB: [She] could see, basically, everything was sorted on the ground. They had one washing facility and the water from that went straight into the river – there was no environmental controls on the washing.
CD: So just to put things back in perspective: plastic that was put in the recycling bin in the western world, is now on the ground in South China in an informal facility with no environmental control. That’s what we’re trying to prove here.
MB: So, they would take a bale of this plastic which probably has maybe seventy thousand pieces of plastic in it. Everything from strawberry containers to take-out containers, to yogurt tubs…all kinds of little things that get in there like caps, lids, forks, spoons, plastic utensils. Different colours – you’d have clear, black, green, yellow…. And each of those have those have to be sorted. So they’re probably sorting into thirty or forty different categories of different resins of plastics that can be put together for recycling.
EM: What? Thirty to forty categories?
CD: Yes, so those workers have developed skill to recognise what kind of plastic they have in hand, which is quite tricky to be honest.
MB: Different colours of plastics, different grades of plastics – whether it’s flexible plastic or really rigid plastic with different kinds of additives in it. And so all that’s being just on the open ground with people squatting on it. Sometimes, to figure out what kind of it is, they’ll burn a little bit of it and smell it, which is really horrific and very toxic.
CD: Yes you haven’t seen this in the documentaries?
CD: Smell is a great way to identify plastic, yes you need to burn a little bit of it first but hey – it’s recycling! Actually it reminds me of the old days – I used to do this as well at school, um….not for recycling, but…[laughs].
MB: But that’s the way the categorisation of some of the plastics is done if they can’t figure out what it is by sight, or sometimes by tapping it for the sound it makes. And so they’re touching everything, and it’s all food contaminated, it’s pretty dirty. It’s got a lot of grime on it.
MB: So that’s being sorted into bags or bigger baskets or buckets, and then those get aggregated into larger bags, gaylords, or some kind of container. Then once they’ve got enough of one kind of material, they’ll put it through a grinder that chops it up into the size of a quarter or maybe half an inch in diameter.
CD: That’s about one centimetre.
MB: And then they put that into their washing tub and they wash it and get it all nice and clean. And then they will dry it. That dry [stuff] is called flake – when it’s all chipped and clean. And that flake would either be sold as is (depending on the kind of plastic), or it would be taken to a nearby facility where they melt that down and extrude it out into long strings – they look like spaghetti noodles. As those cool, they get chopped up into tiny little pellets that are called nurdles. Then that gets put into bags and then those bags are sold.
EM: Wait wait wait: from those bags with thirty to forty different categories, to grinding in small one centimetre pieces, to melting, to…
CD: …to spaghettis….
EM: That are then chopped into small pellets…
MB: …that are called nurdles. Then that gets put into bags and then those bags are sold. And in China, mostly that goes for low-grade domestic manufacturing goods you could think of, like cheap kids toys or hair combs, things like that. Semi-durable plastics that probably end up in the garbage pretty quickly.
CD: Yeah basically, since we can swear on the show, I would call this: all the sh*t plastic that is really the last thing you want in your home.
EM: Okay…so this is what Martin’s colleague saw when she got there, or?
CD: No, so this is how this kind of operation is running when they receive plastic bales. The thing is…
MB: She’s not seeing any imported plastic there, she’s not seeing anything from the U.S. So she asks them, “Well, do you get import-grade materials?” And they said, “No, no, we haven’t got that for several months. That market is totally shut down. We wish we could get that stuff, but we can’t get it anymore”.
This was a big concern for us, because first of all we had a facility that we felt okay about. It wasn’t great, it wouldn’t be permitted in California.
PLASTIC RECYCLING MARKETS – IMPOSSIBLE TO CONTROL
CD: So here he is talking about the facility they were working with at the very beginning, before the market crashed.
MB: But it at least had some water quality and air quality controls, and decent labour standards. But now we don’t even know where it’s going, because our last tracker made it to China, and now somebody goes to look at the facility, and they say, “Oh, we can’t even buy that stuff anymore”.
CD: So that’s one first thing to learn from plastic scrap markets in Asia. They are impossible to control, you think you know where your stuff is going, but it’s changing all the time.
EM: I see.
MB: And what’s happened in the meantime is while the amount of stuff that we’re collecting keeps going up – every month we get more and more of it – but the price of it keeps going further and further down. We used to get twelve dollars a tonne for it, which is not very much at all. And then we weren’t getting anything for it, we just had to give it away. And now we have to pay to get rid of it.
We’re starting to pay almost as much as it costs to send something to the landfill. It takes about sixty dollars a tonne to send garbage to the landfill in this area.
CD: And we’ll get back to this debate about shipping it to pseudo-recycling versus landfill, versus incineration, because it deserves its own discussion.
CD: I stay on markets because then they found out their stuff is not even going to China anymore.
MB: When we heard that our stuff wasn’t even going to China anymore, that gave us great pause. Because we know that in Southeast Asia there are a lot of countries that don’t even have the level of development and the regulatory context or infrastructure capacity that China has. So when you’re paying to get rid of it, you’re paying somebody to take your scrap, there’s an incredible incentive for them to get paid to take that scrap and then just get rid of it in the cheapest possible way.
That sounds to me like a race to the bottom.
CD: This is fundamental. You don’t need to be a Harvard economist to understand that if something is put on the market, has no value (actually the contrary), you are paying someone to get rid of it, and this negative value chain is not controlled – then you have a serious problem.
EM: And we are talking about millions of tonnes every year.
MB: And so that made us even more concerned. So we sent out another tracker. Actually, we sent out a few, but one of them succeeded.
CD: I stop here.
EM: No don’t do that!
CD: Not only for the pleasure of the cliffhanger. But also because there are quite a few conclusions to unpack here and I want to make sure we look at this with a constructive mind.
First of all – if you are interested in tracking stories: we were invited to host a live talkshow about this in a few days. A few partners coming together, and Martin may even be with us in person to tell us how this ended. This will be in Brussels on November 6th, it’s coming very soon, link in the episode notes.
EM: I can’t wait!
CD: Next point: imagine a properly funded research program that could deploy these trackers at scale…
CD: That’s all, just imagine.
EM: Not sure people want to know where their plastic stuff is going….
CD: Something else I wanted to mention at this point:
I hear a few sceptical voices: “this is a U.S. story, who is telling me the same may be happening with the European plastic recycling?”
EM: In the previous episode we shared some public numbers about all the plastic that is going to Asia.
PLASTIC EXPORT TO CHINA – JUST AN AMERICAN PROBLEM? WHAT ABOUT EUROPE?
EM: And in case it’s not enough, maybe now is a good moment to share some of the figures I got from this port in Benelux that I can’t name.
EM: Well thanks to our in-house spreadsheet consolidation capabilities, we can say that…
EM: Out of all destinations for exported plastic scraps, almost 60% was going to China,
EM: 18% to Hong Kong.
CD: Probably before going somewhere else.
EM: Yes. And if you sum China and Hong Kong, it’s more than a quarter million tonnes of plastic. Just for 2016, just from that one port in Benelux. I’ll let you imagine.
EM: And then smaller percentages go to Vietnam, Malaysia, India…less than 5% each time.
CD: So it’s safe to say that our plastic scraps probably receive the same treatment as Martin’s plastic bales.
EM: Yes, definitely. Why would it be different?
CD: The only thing that matters is what’s in the container. If it’s in a container to Asia first of all it’s that it makes financial sense to send over there.
If it’s clean material and is a valuable type of plastic on asian markets, it will probably be recycled in some way.
EM: Downcycled, actually.
CD: But impossible to know how, where, in what conditions, following what standards.
If it’s not that clean and valuable, then first of all you are probably paying to get rid of it rather than selling it for a good price. And secondly, you can imagine what happens to it when it reaches Asian megacities where they won’t know what to do with it.
EM: That’s the part you see in documentaries and YouTube videos.
CD: So take all that plastic that has no value whatsoever, and that we basically dump on Asian waste markets every year. Add all the low-grade plastic that other western countries send over there. Add up all the post-consumer plastic scraps produced within those asian countries,
EM: By their own population, you mean.
CD: Right. You get millions and millions of tonnes of plastic every year that recyclers don’t want, that informal waste pickers don’t want and…
EM: Hey, wouldn’t that correspond to the millions of tonnes ending up in the ocean every year from those five Asian countries we named in last episode?
CD: I feel like Sherlock Holmes.
EM: Well, millions of tonnes of worthless plastic dumped on the shore or river sides, and millions of tonnes of worthless plastic enter the ocean every year.
CD: There must be a connection?
EM: I would think so…
CD: Well, some stakeholders do not want to see it.
CD: Yeah we are going to have to tell the truth… again.
EM: Another annoying journalist telling the truth, eh?
CD: At this point we just wanted to demonstrate that what you see in the ocean is actually western plastic waste. Not only asian plastic waste.
EM: I think this is very clear by now.
CD: In the next episode, we are going to keep climbing upstream and start talking about what European industry and policy makers can do right now to face this reality.
EM: It’s now clear that this is where actions are needed.
CD: Not in pretending we are going to help asian countries fix their problem.
EM: It’s also about what’s going on in our continent.
CD: Eleen, I forgot to tell you one detail.
CD: It’s a little parameter we should take into account…
EM: Come on, tell me.
CD: China doesn’t want our plastic anymore.
CD: Millions of tonnes are going to stay at the Chinese border as of January first 2018.
EM: I’m sorry!?
CD: Official order. All that trash woke the dragon, as we say. The Government announced late June that they are banning imports for twenty-four categories of materials, including all the plastic crap we have been sending for years.
EM: I can’t believe it.
CD: This is a huge shake on recycling markets.
EM: They are tired of being the trash pile of western countries maybe?
CD: Maybe…. So that’s something we are going to talk about in next episode.
EM: I bet.
CD: And most importantly what we can do about it, or what we should do about it!
EM: How do you fight a dragon right?
CD: Coming soon on Green Exchange!
EM: In the meantime, don’t forget to sign up for our live talk show in Brussels on November 6th. Link in the notes.
CD: And you can tell the truth to your neighbour about his yogurt tub floating in a Chinese river, but just make sure he keeps being a good citizen. Separating your waste at home is important.
EM: Even if the system is still far from perfect
CD: Thanks again to Martin and everyone who is helping us with this series.
EM: A lot of research is going on right now
CD: We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration – and dragon moves. Keep up the good work in the meantime!
Millions of tonnes of plastic enter our ocean every year. If we’re going to stop this flood, we need to know where the leak is. Is the in countries where huge amounts of plastic enters the sea? Would that explain how a plastic wrapper dropped in a recycling bin in England ended up on a Chinese beach thousands of kilometres away? No, it is more complicated than that – time to cast a wider net.
We’re not the only ones looking for answers. In this episode, we share the story of Martin Bourque: the man who put a GPS tracker into his plastic bale in California, and found out the truth about where his plastic was going.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Camille Duran [CD]: Hey do you like facts?
Eleen Murphy [EM]: I prefer stories.
CD: I tell you a short one, it’s the story of human society dropping four hundred kilograms of plastic in the ocean every second.
EM: Yes I heard this scary number. From our EU First Vice President at the Ocean conference in Malta, right?
CD: Yes. Should we double check his calculation by the way?
EM: I don’t think it’s necessary.
CD: How many seconds in a year…?
EM: Come one….
CD: Help me out!
EM: Okay fine…I would say 31,536,000.
CD: Okay so he is on twelve million tons a year, which is a bit above what we’ve found out. But yeah, let’s say everyone seems to agree it’s more than eight million tons of plastic a year that end up into the ocean.
EM: Who cares about the exact number. It’s millions of tonnes, it’s way too much, let’s fix it!
CD: Right. Welcome to our ocean series, a fifteen episode investigation where we tell the truth.
EM: That’s your tagline?
CD: Uh, a fifteen episode investigation where we tell the truth and talk to interesting people.
EM: Wow. I think our listeners are really impressed by now. Why don’t you tell us what’s on the menu for today?
CD: In the previous episode, we got to the conclusion that the best thing we can do to solve plastic pollution is working upstream. Making sure no plastic enters the ocean in the first place.
EM: Never ever again.
CD: So for the rest of the series, I am taking you upstream. Starting now.
CD: On the menu for the upcoming episodes: we’ll look at a map and point fingers; then we’ll realise we’re are pointing fingers in the wrong direction; we’ll follow plastic upstream, all the way up to your kitchen.
EM: What? My kitchen?
CD: We explain why recycling markets will have a big, big big problem starting January first, 2018.
[News Audio Clip]: China has notified the World Trade Organisation that it will ban the import of twenty four different types of garbage.
CD: Which means we will all have a big, big problem as well. We discuss how the EU Commission is integrating (or not) this big, big problem into the upcoming Plastic Strategy. But before that, I will tell you a story we are the first ones to break:
Martin Bourque [MB]: This is the first public interview, and I figured; a podcast within the industry is a little different than the New York Times [laughs].
EM: Oh that’s the story of the recycler who hides GPS tracking devices in his plastic bales.
CD: Yes, we should call it a guide actually: how to find the final destination of your plastic bale if you are on a tight budget?
EM: I love it.
CD: We’ll make a few episodes out of all this.
EM: Let’s get started I can’t wait.
CD: Where does ocean plastic come from?
CHINA, ASIA, EUROPE, USA – WHERE DOES OCEAN PLASTIC COME FROM?
CD: So Millions of tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year. I am sure you will agree that the first logical thing to do is looking at where this is happening?
EM: What countries let that plastic fall into the ocean you mean?
CD: Yes, and how exactly? Rivers, shore, how the hell did we get to such big numbers?
EM: Yeah, it’s not like a small leak into the system. Good place to start!
CD: Well… let’s get to the point, no need to drag it out. It seems that 80% of ocean pollution comes from land activity.
EM: So the rest comes from maritime activity,
CD: Yes, and we’ll get back to this later in the series. Looking at land: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand are the countries where most plastic enters the ocean, accounting for more than 60% of the total.
CD: Now those stats usually don’t include what’s coming from rivers. There is some discussion at the moment about how to account for rivers, we’ll get back to this later on in the series.
EM: Okay so the problem mainly comes from South East Asia?
CD: Right. That’s what people tend to think “Ocean Plastic? It’s because of the Chinese. At home I separate my plastic waste and then it gets recycled”.
EM: Okay, are you saying my plastic doesn’t get recycled?
CD: Less than 6% of your plastic gets recycled, Eleen.
EM: What? Less than 6% What happens to the rest of it…!?!?
CD: Hmm… Let’s take it step by step so we don’t lose anyone. And this way we can also be precise and accurate.
EM: Man, I can’t believe it.
CD: Let’s break it down. What we can say for sure is that in Europe, roughly 45% of our plastic is exported to Asia. This is public data. Links in the episode notes. The US also exports massive quantities of plastic to Asia, we’ll get back to that.
EM: So if most of the ocean plastic comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, and we export millions of tonnes to those countries, then chances are…our plastic ends up in the ocean too?
CD: Chances are, as you’re saying. Actually, it’s more than “chances are”. China, for instance, imports at least 55-60% of the rest of the world’s plastic. It’s not like if there was a sign on Chinese beaches and rivers saying, “Asian plastic only, European plastic gets recycled according to human rights and planetary boundaries”.
EM: No, I get you. From the point plastic enters those markets in the first place it’s difficult to track.
CD: Difficult but not impossible.
EM: I see you coming…
EM: Wait before we look at final destinations for our plastic, could you explain how things for post-consumer plastic? For those who may not be aware.
CD: Yes sure.
EM: Let’s say, all I know is…I buy products at the supermarket, with all their beautiful packaging, and now it’s in my home.
CD: Well, all this single-use plastic probably ends up in the bin shortly after…
EM: It does…
CD: Okay, so let’s take the scenario where your city placed a separate bin for plastic, or a bin for all recyclables. Then you sort your plastic and throw it in there.
CD: You did the job, you’re a good citizen. And regardless of what happens after and what I am going to say now – you should keep being a good citizen, it really matters even if only 6% gets recycled, tomorrow it may be seven, then eight, etc.
EM: Hm yeah?
CD: So you’re plastic packaging is in the bin, useless.
CD: It’s at this very moment that the real adventure starts.
CD: It starts there, in this street container, with all of the other unhappy plastic packaging items
CD: Yes, because they have been used for a few seconds only, and we already call them waste.
CD: They get picked up by a truck. This is where they meet a lot of other unhappy friends, unhappy because they too-
EM: -have been used a few minutes only. Okay, keep it moving…
CD: Ok, they all travel together for a few kilometers to a sorting station, or what we call a MRF: A Municipal Recycling Facility.
EM: Ah that’s where all those trucks go.
CD: Yes. Trucks enter the yard, get on a huge scale so the station can track how much material is coming in, and then they go drop all the materials in a pile. From there the materials get sorted into different fractions, sometimes using automated systems. Sometimes with human workers that separate by hand the different materials from conveyer belts.
CD: From there plastics are regrouped by types. Typically they are compressed and tied into plastic bales to optimise their handling. You can just imagine big cubes of compressed plastics, of various qualities. From there, each type of plastic is going to take a different road.
EM: Where do they go next?
CD: Well, it depends on a number of parameters, like where is the sorting station located, the shape of the regional markets for materials, disposal options etc. To make it simple: the plastics that are easily recyclables in Europe will go to a European recycler if it makes economic sense to recycle them. That’s often the case for the PET for instance, which is the plastic type one.
EM: Plastic type one? What’s that?
CD: If you look under a plastic bottle for instance, there is small triangle printed on the plastic with a number inside it.
Number 1 means it is PET – Polyethylene terephthalate.
EM: So that’s easily recyclable.
CD: Let’s say it’s what has most value on European recycling markets today. Typically water bottles for instance – which by the way do not get recycled into other bottles. But that’s another story.
EM: Okay so type one is the most valuable. What happens to the other plastic types?
CD: Well there are the ones we don’t really know how to recycle. All the multi-layer packaging for instance, you know? Where plastic is mixed with layers of other materials
EM: Right, I hate those.
CD: Well now you hate them more, because they cannot really be recycled and the sorting station is either going to send it to a landfill, to an incinerator – not to say a cement kiln – or ship them to Asia.
EM: So the plastic that is not recyclable goes to Asia…
CD: We are generalising a little bit here. Let’s say it has no value what so ever, so you are going to pay someone to get rid of it. If your local landfill is cheaper than sending it to China, then you will landfill it. If a cement kiln is offering to burn it for fuel and you don’t mind the illegal part, that is what you will do. The thing about shipping it to Asia is that it’s extremely cheap.
Ships come from China to deliver goods in Europe or to the U.S., instead of going back to China empty, they fill the containers with plastic scraps and make a business out of it.
EM: Some people would call this carbon emission reductions…
CD: Right. There is also the plastic that we could technically recycle in Europe if it made economic sense,
EM: But it doesn’t,
CD: So they are getting the same treatment as the ones that are not recyclable. This is how your little friend the plastic packaging ends up in places where you don’t really want to send it in the first place: a Chinese dump, a landfill, an incinerator, the ocean, a dirty beach somewhere.
EM: I don’t know what to say. Is there a positive side to the story?
CD: Uhh… no. Basically, the conclusion is that European plastic scraps enter a commodity market. So typically sorting stations and recyclers are in touch with brokers who will coordinate the shipping of those plastic scraps all around the world.
EM: Okay, so basically if I run a Municipal Recycling Facility, I’m looking for what is the best value I can get for my plastic bales?
EM: And there are brokers specialising in finding destinations for those materials.
EM: So the brokers should know where it’s going, no?
CD: Sort of. You get a destination port and you don’t know what’s happening next.
CD: This is where Martin comes in.
EM: Martin? Oh yeah the man behind the GPS tracker story…
CD: Yes. [Movie trailer voice] “Coming next, a recycler puts a GPS tracking to find the final destination of the plastic bales he is exporting every week.”
EM: Okay, keep it moving!
CD: That’s Martin. Just to recap before we switch to spy-mode:
- We started from the countries that are dropping most plastic into the ocean.
- We looked at the contribution of European plastics to their recycling markets – if we can call them as such.
- We now understand the basics of recycling markets in Europe, we are able to track the containers back to the first destination ports.
I think that’s not too bad for a start!
EM: Yes and we we stuck at the destination port.
CD: Until I heard from that man.
MB: My name is Martin Bourque, I’m the Executive Director at the Ecology Centre in Berkeley, California.
CD: He found a way to track some of his shipments, all the way to their final destination.
TRACKING PLASTIC BALES – MARTIN’S STORY
CD: And in Berkeley they have been recycling since 1973.
CD: Martin and his team are deep into the recycling mindset. He operates an organisation called Ecology Centre, which among other things collect the recyclables in Berkeley. I think I actually met Martin and visited the station in 2013, when I was starting to get interested in materials…
EM: Wow you’re an old man!
CD: Right. Anyway, I want to thank him because he is not public about this story and he accepted to talk to us and let us publish it.
MB: This is the first public interview, and I figured; a podcast within the industry is a little different than the New York Times [laughs].
EM: Yes but New York Times is listening and is going to chase him now!
CD: It’s s an exciting story.
EM: Let’s get to it.
MB: Hey there!
CD: [To Martin]: Hey Martin, how are you?
MB: I’m good, how’s it going?
CD: Yes so first i asked him why he wanted to track his plastic bales, why was he suspicious about their destination?
MB: In 2013 we started collecting mixed “recyclable” plastic, and I say recyclable in quotes. At that time we had a pretty clear line of site to a facility in China where our broker out of the port of Oakland was sending the materials. And we had actually worked with partners in China, the Wuhu Ecology Center. And those folks had gone over and inspected the facility in China, and found pretty good labour standards and pretty decent environmental controls on the plastics recycling facility. They were actually making export-grade pellet and flake.
CD: But market crashed a couple of years ago, you may remember that?
EM: Yes, I was still young but I remember. And?
MB: We found out that our materials were no longer going to that facility at [indistinct], and that raised a lot of concerns for us. We had recently encountered the filmmaker of Plastic China and seen some pretty horrific footage of the informal sector in China.
CD: Plastic China is a film to watch if you are interested in those questions.
EM: Link in the episode notes.
MB: Where materials are being sorted by hand in backyards in pretty horrific conditions. They would pull out whatever was valuable and then the rest of it would just get dumped onto the side of the road or pushed into a canyon. So we were very concerned, as an environmental organisation that pioneered recycling and was the first kerbside recycler in the U.S.. We were very concerned that things we were telling our residents were being recycled, might actually be contributing the problems of ocean pollution and problems with air and water quality – as well as some horrific labour standards.
CD: Imagine a world where everyone in waste management cared the way Martin cares? About where materials go I mean!
EM: Yeah…it takes courage to face the truth, and not everyone is courageous.
CD: This is the least we can say.
EM: So, they knew and controlled where their plastic was going, market crashes, big mess, they don’t know anymore?
MB: So, when we found that out, we started thinking: how can we find out where our stuff is going? Because, basically, the way it works is that we collect the stuff at the kerb; it goes to our sorting and processing facility and it gets baled up into these big bales that get put into shipping containers. Then, those shipping containers are sold as units and they get brokered by a brokerage firm here in California, and then they get sold to a broker in some other port in Asia.
Historically that had been Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong they’d be shipped to the mainland in China. But we couldn’t tell where it was going, we had no way of tracking. Once it left our broker’s line of sight, there’s no chain of custody that made it possible for us to see where it actually ended up.
CD: Same problem that everyone has, you don’t know what’s going on beyond the destination port.
EM: Tracking is difficult.
CD: Difficult, but not impossible.
MB: So we started looking around for some kind of GPS tracking device that could locate a bale of this plastic at its final destination.
CD: And they finally found one that matched their needs.
MB: So we really needed something that had satellite GPS location as well as an international cellular plan so that it could locate itself and send out a signal to be picked up and put on a map.
CD: So yeah, we won’t get too technical but basically there are two ways you can locate a tracking device: using GPS (the satellite), or using cell phone towers, which the devices connect to when they are in reach and the exact position is triangulated. It’s important for the rest of the story.
MB: We were inspired in part by the work of the Basel Action Network, who had recently done a very extensive tracking program with electronic waste. It turns out they found a lot of U.S. electronics recyclers were actually exporting into some pretty bad situations in Asia, which they claimed they weren’t doing. And so that was inspiring to us. We looked at a number of devices. They actually worked with M.I.T. to build their own platform, but we found a private provider out of the San Francisco Bay area called Tracking The World.
It’s just a small company that has developed a GPS tracking device – if you remember what a pager looked like, it looks like that. It’s a small black plastic box that’s about two inches, by three inches, by an inch. Inside it has a SIM card and GPS tracking technology. We worked with them to make sure it would only ping, or send out a signal, when it moved, and/or once a day.
CD: That’s important. It sends a signal only when it moves and/or once a day.
EM: Oh ok, so you can stay tuned to what’s going on.
MB: And that way you could really conserve the battery, because we knew we needed at least a couple of months of battery for it to get through the ports and end up at its final destination.
CD: Yes, I asked how much they cost.
MB: They run about 250 bucks with a three-month plan, and we thought, let’s just try out a few of these. We got some individual donations from our members to support the work-
EM: Wait $250 with a three month plan?
CD: Yeah for the communications, like a SIM card. That’s pretty affordable no?
EM: Yeah! I was expecting a bigger investment.
CD: The thing is you probably need a few of them because it takes some trial and error.
MB: We tried a few different approaches. We discovered that getting them through the processing facility basically destroyed them. So we had to attach them to the bales after they’d been processed and baled – we couldn’t threw them in through the processing bin and expect it to end up a bale and still be alive.
CD: Those good learning lessons for our listeners who I am sure are going to try this at home.
EM: Disclaimer message?
CD: Please try this at home.
EM: Or at your recycling facility!
CD: Here is how exactly:
EM: All you need is a plastic bail.
MB: The bales are pretty dense, so the plastics are crushed really tightly and then they’ve got baling around them. These are big blocks of compressed plastic. They’re about four or five feet long, by three feet wide and four feet high, something like that. So we had to actually wedge them into the side of the bale. I thought initially we might need some kind of adhesive to hold them in there, but just the pressure of the bale, if you can get it wedged in there, they’re not coming out.
We also wanted them near the surface of the bale so that they could get a better GPS or cellular signal. Some of the limitations with the technology is that to get a satellite GPS location which is really accurate, the device needs to see the sky.
CD: It’s a bit like your children, they need to see the sky sometimes.
EM: Yes it’s a bit like children, if they don’t see the sky they start to triangulate.
MB: They can’t be under a roof, or inside one of the shipping containers. So they’re not very accurate unless they’re seeing the sky directly. And if they don’t see the sky and can’t see the satellite, then they start trying to figure out where they are by triangulating off of cellular towers. So if there are cellular towers nearby and they get a cell signal, they get a pretty close reading in terms of their location, but they could be as much as a couple of hundred yards off when triangulating off of cell towers. And if the cell towers are further away, it gets less and less accurate. But, once they’re in the sea container, they lose the satellite and so then we’re locating off of cell towers, and it gets a little less accurate.
EM: I feel like in a spy movie.
CD: Yes that’s exactly what I told him…
MB: Yeah, it felt pretty stealthy, like, okay we’re actually going to see where these things go. And more than feeling like a spy, there was a real curiosity to where is this actually going to end up in the world. Because we just see it for that minute between the recycling bin and when we send it to the brokerage firm. And then it’s off to the port of Oakland and we don’t see it anymore. So, to be able to see a longer life of where this stuff actually goes was pretty exciting. I know it sounds a little nerdy, but…
CD: How exciting is your morning coffee now right? you have this tracking device somewhere in the world, opening the computer to see where it is.
EM: I want one!
MB: At first I didn’t want to share it too widely. So it was just me and a couple of people. We had a link from the provider that took us to a map, like a Google-style map on the desktop. And I could see it sitting there in our recycling yard, and it would ping once a day and get a little signal. I could download a table and it would show me the GPS locations and the times that it located. And for about a week I’m just sitting there watching it sit in our yard, and then when the shipment was going out and suddenly it starts pinging in a storage yard near the Port of Oakland, getting ready to get on a ship. It’s sitting there for a good week or two weeks, and I’m checking it every day – when I have a little break I take a look and see.
And then, one day it’s just gone. And I’m like, okay that either means that it’s broken and it’s no longer working – and we had a number of them that failed for a number of different reasons. So maybe it just stopped working, maybe the battery went dead, maybe it got moved around and crushed – or it’s on a sea container on a ship, out in the middle of the pacific. I just didn’t know, so I keep checking everyday, and nothing new, nothing new, nothing new.
Frankly, we didn’t know where it was going. We suspected it would be going back through Hong Kong and into China, but it could have gone to India for all we knew, you know? We had no idea. And, frankly, we didn’t know how long it took a ship to get across the pacific ocean, or if it made multiple stops, or if it would stop in, who knows, Honolulu and get put on a different ship. We just didn’t have any idea.
CD: So at this point, Martin doesn’t know if the tracker is dead, broken, without battery. Or somewhere out in the ocean where the satellite or cell towers cannot get the signal….
CD: but suddenly
CD: But suddenly I think it’s time to close this episode.
CD: We’ll find out soon, Eleen.
EM: This is mean!
CD: This is fun! And remember we said we would try to keep our episodes short.
EM: Okay, okay….
CD: If you have any questions, if you need tips for your own GPS tracking experiment, please don’t hesitate to get in touch,
CD: We’ll be back very soon with more green knowledge, inspiration & GPS tracking. Keep up the good work in the meantime.
One main reason cleaning up the ocean is not going to work: so many of us underestimate the wrath of the sea. The many technical challenges are so much bigger than we realise, and while we all desperately wish the magic-bullet solutions will work…the cold hard facts tell a different story.
That’s what oceanographer Kim Martini tells us in this episode. She’s one of the only people to do a scientific peer review of the Ocean Cleanup Project’s feasibility study. The results are very interesting. The main questions we ask her: what exactly are the challenges we’re facing? And is there any hope for cleaning up the ocean, or will we have to live with this plastic soup forever?
Check out the Oceans series page for complementary resources & bonus materials.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Picture credit: Plastic Oceans Foundation
Camille Duran [CD]: Eleen are you ready I am launching the mythbusting machine.
Eleen Murphy [EM]: Sure, go for it!
CD: It may get loud.
[Voicemail]: Hello my name is Aimee and I would like to know
Can we really cleanup the ocean?
CD: Hi everyone! Today we are going to answer one important question: can we really cleanup the ocean? Is this really possible? Or how much of it can we clean?
EM: Yes! Well done on the song adaptation by the way! I didn’t know you’re able to sing.
CD: Really? Can’t you hear how much I fake it? Studio tricks baby that’s all!
EM: Well,it works!
EM: Camille has been squeezing researcher Kim Martini – or her knowledge, I should say.
EM: We introduced her in the last episode.
CD: I have been challenging her, like everyone who comes on the show.
EM: You’re the man for that alright!
CD: We fight hard to bring you the truth, beloved listeners.
EM: How’s about we jump right in?
CD: Let’s do it.
CD: Can we really cleanup the ocean? We said it’s more of a good-to-know question, really. For those who are just joining us: we believe the real answers to the ocean plastic problem are upstream but yes, we should also consider the feasibility of cleaning up what we can so here we are.
EM: You have a disclaimer message?
CD: I do. The following views can sound a little bit critical. I want to say that we praise the existing efforts of everyone involved in someway in environmental actions. It is important to mobilise engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs and anyone who is interested in giving a hand to find solutions and cleanup what we can of ocean plastic.
EM: Those efforts are very important, keep it going.
CD: What we are challenging with this myth busting episode is the fact that ocean cleanup has been occupying a large majority of the mainstream media space – mainly via the work of Boyan Slat and the Ocean Cleanup Project. This is sometimes steering the debate in the wrong direction, even in most specialised circles.
Together we are going to find out what is possible today – and what we can expect for the years to come.
Spoiler alert! You are probably going to get disappointed.
EM: But! that’ll be productive for the investigation as a whole.
CD: Actually, I’ll go ahead and save your time right now, because you’re busy: if you just want to know if we can cleanup the ocean, the answer is much closer to the no than to the yes – you guessed it. And things are not likely to change anytime soon. Why? because it’s not only a technology issue.
EM: What a spoiler you are Camille.
CD: It’s more productive, that’s all.
EM: Now, if you want to understand the nuances and dig into this with us… stick around!
CD: If by now you know enough, just move on, we won’t get offended, I promise.
EM: So, why did you pick Kim Martini. Who is she? Why should we trust her?
CD: Ok, good question. First because she is an oceanographer.
Kim Martini [KM]: How do I introduce myself? Well, first: hi my name is Dr. Kim Martini. I’m an oceanographer, which means I study the physics of the ocean, and to do that I’ve spent a lot of time deploying instruments in the ocean. Right now I work with how to get the best data from these instruments. But on my side-time, I like to tell people about the ocean, so I do a lot of outreach through blogging or Twitter.
CD: She blogs at Deep Sea News which is a nice channel if you want to follow ocean topics.
KM: I would say that we’re not your normal ocean bloggers, because we like to use popular culture and humour, and cold hard scientific facts to tell people what’s going on in the ocean.
CD: Cold hard scientific facts, humor and pop culture, written by scientists. That sounds like a blog you’d want to read right?
EM: And people I’d like to hang with.
CD: Worth mentioning: she really wants to find cleanup solutions. And that’s an important qualifier for this interview. She wants a clean ocean tomorrow. Like you and me.
KM: I wish. I want to in my heart. I’m on the page with them – I want to see a solution. I want to see something that works. I’m horrified! When I go to the beach, when I go out and there’s stuff everywhere.
EM: Fair enough. She’s not the naysayer we sometimes see in those debates.
CD: No, she hates the idea of being part of that myth busting, but she felt it’s her duty to tell the truth.
EM: And she studied the Ocean Cleanup Project specifically right?
CD: Yes, in great detail. Because when the Ocean Cleanup Project went viral and Boyan Slat finally released a comprehensive feasibility study back in 2014 – hundreds of pages of technical stuff no YouTube viewer would understand – she was asked with her colleague to do a scientific peer review of the study, common practice in the scientific community. But no one else was up for it. So she took care of the engineering part, and her colleague Dr. Miriam Goldstein took care of the biology part.
CD: And you know, before we jump into the technicalities, I want to look at this from a change management perspective because there is something that comes back all the time:
We, human beings, have a big talent for oversimplification. When I look at a question – such as can we clean up the ocean – I want to hear yes or no. I don’t have the time nor the interest to understand the nuances. I just love the story of this young champion that seems to have a plan and that’s what I feel like standing behind.
And this is a classic case with change management stories. Now the reality is ,more complicated than this and we need people to do the homework and look into the details of this (that’s number one). And number two: we need to start getting used to nuances, conditions, variables – and looking at the big picture.
EM: People like Kim help us understand the nuances.
EM: So thank you all, people like Kim.
CLEANING THE OCEAN: ENGINEERING & LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES
EM: So what did you cover first
CD: We started talking about the disproportionate visibility of the Ocean Cleanup Project because it’s probably the most prominent solution to date. It now received millions of dollars of funding and I wanted to ask Kim what we can hope from it.
EM: Yes actually our colleague Sorenza found out that if you go on YouTube and go through the first twenty videos for the search “ocean pollution”, 50% of the views go to the Ocean Cleanup Project.
CD: I am not surprised, the way people responded to Boyan’s narrative is a great illustration of this oversimplification syndrome media audiences are victim of. Here is how Kim puts it:
KM: It’s so compelling because it’s such a simple narrative. “I will use the ocean to clean itself”. It’s a problem because now he’s framing it as: all we have to do is throw a lot of money at the problem, and it’ll solve itself. You don’t have to do anything to change, you’re not personally responsible. It’s so easy. He just frames it as this very easy problem that is solvable with engineering, and I would disagree with that.
CD: General rule of thumb for you busy people with no time to check the feasibility of a solution: when it’s too good to be true…you probably want to keep reservations.
EM: Or call the myth busters!
EM: Can we get into the engineering challenges now?
CD: Sure, that’s Kim’s expertise. Do we have the technology? And will we have it in ten years, fifteen years, etc? I always thought, there must be something usable in the work of the Ocean Cleanup Project, behind all the glitter, there might be stuff we can actually apply today or short-term.
CD [to Kim]: Can you note any substantial progress in the previous years? What is the pace of innovation, and is this going to get somewhere?
KM: I think they’re doing a good effort of trying to address the engineering challenges. I think they’re finally trying to address the bio-fouling challenges. So it seems like they’re moving in the right direction. Those were the two major challenges that we outlined in our review which we wrote four years ago. But I would also say that in our review as well, one of the main points we said is that making deep ocean moorings is really hard.
CD: I pause here for a second. If like me you were wondering what is a deep ocean mooring – it’s like a collection of devices, connected to a wire and anchored on the seafloor. Deep. Really deep in the ocean.
KM: Just to even engineer the structure; so they were going to make the world’s largest ocean structure, to pick up trash. And we said that that’s really hard. That’s a hard technical challenge. We’ve never done that from an engineering standpoint as humans, we’ve never made something that large.
And it was really interesting because we said that moorings are hard four years ago – and it was just this past spring when the Ocean Cleanup Project had a press release that said “Oh yeah, moorings are really hard! We’re going to do this other floating idea”. And I thought, well we already said that four years ago. So it’s like, okay, they are moving forward, but how far forward have they moved on if we said that four years ago?
And I’d also like to point out that having freely floating structures that are freely drafting is another huge technological challenge that has its own incredibly complicated problems.
CD [to Kim]: It looks easy on the slide-show.
KM: Oh, it does look very easy on the slide-show! But it’s not. And I think they really over-simplified the engineering that’s going to be involved in that. They simplify everything. And I mean, that’s what you have to do – if you want to tell somebody about what you’re trying to do and it’s highly technical, you do have to simplify it. You have to make it easy to understand, but you also have to be realistic about the challenges and I don’t think they’re doing this. Because it looks like they have a lot of really technical people, but the ocean is a really mean place. It is really hard on your instruments, it is really hard on anything you put in there. And I think sometimes they really underestimate the wrath of the sea.
CD: So Eleen, here is the first punchline: there are real engineering challenges that tend to be greatly underestimated, and it sounds like we are really far from a solution someone like Kim can really believe in.
EM: How about solutions other than the Ocean Cleanup Project one?
CD: Good question. I asked her what’s the potential of any solution out there?
KM: Oh boy. So it’s a really hard problem…
EM: I like how she calls you boy when she says, “Oh boy”.
CD: Oh yeah? here it is one more time.
KM: Oh boy. So it’s a really hard problem, okay? There’s a lot of plastic, it’s all over the place and at different levels, but it’s also really scattered. So how are you going to do something that’s efficient enough to pick up a lot of plastic, but also pick up a lot of useable plastic and not pick up everything else too. So that’s something people have to think about. You’re scooping up stuff that’s been in the ocean, but you’re not just picking up plastic. If we use a fishing term – there’s by-catch.
CD: That is the problem all technical solutions are confronted with. By-catch.
EM: Yes because it seems plastic is really everywhere, in the arctic, in the deep oceans, at the surface, everywhere really.
CD: So punchline number two: you can’t really pick up plastic without picking up all the other stuff as well, it’s a real fish & plastic soup out there.
EM: Mmmh. But wait, I can go with the idea that we can’t pick up everything, but at least all the big pieces that lie in the patches? That stuff Charles Moore is standing on in his famous videos?
CD: That is exactly what I asked. That stuff should be easy to remove.
KM: I’m not sure that we can. In my limited view – so I wouldn’t say I have a hand on every single type of technology that’s out there – but I really don’t see a good feasible way of going out and picking that stuff up that’s going to work. There’s just so much trash in the ocean!
CD: Something we forget is that the Great Pacific Garbage patch for instance is about the size of Texas.
EM: Actually I’m looking at estimates here and you’re talking about the low range estimate, some estimate fifteen million square kilometers – and that’s around 8% of the ocean surface.
CD: You get the idea. Still I didn’t want to take no for an answer I asked her about the different systems out there, there might me something promising…
We reviewed together the main ideas that have been put forward.
TRASH WHEELS & LOCAL CONTEXTS – SOLUTIONS THAT MIGHT ACTUALLY WORK
KM: For me the ones that I think are the most successful so far are, like, the Baltimore Trash Wheel.
CD: So the Baltimore Trash Wheel is a system that is placed at a river catchment, powered by the river current or solar power, has a big wheel like on the old boats or mills, and it actions a rail that brings up the trash that is floating around, dropping it into a container. They picked over half a million tonnes of trash over the last three years – including nine million cigarette buts, and half a million polystyrene containers.
KM: And it does a really good job!
CD: But …
EM: Oh no there is a but?
KM: But, again, this is a really great solution but it’s only limited to places where you have river inputs, and places where you can actually put it. You’re not going to be able to this in the middle of a shipping channel. So, how are you going to block off the flow? Are you going to do it in a small area? So that one’s limited as well.
CD: It’s limited. But it’s great, that’s where efforts should go towards, developing a multiplicity of local solutions that work for a specific context.
EM: I see. And that’s often on preventing more plastic from getting in the ocean in the first place.
CD: That links to our next punchline: there is no silver bullet. Like with everything, there are so many different situations that the engineering challenges are humongous. You can develop a solution that is tailored to a specific situation like they did in Baltimore but the claim that we can clean up the ocean is just too big.
EM: That makes sense.
CD: In case you are still not convinced, there is another argument that she brought up: collateral damage. By-catch is one of them, as we discussed. But also:
KM: …and because you’re using a net you’re going to catch other fish, or harming things. So there’s always that possibility. I do think that’s a good way to do it, but if you’re going to do that on a large scale, that has it’s challenges too. And also you’re going to use a lot of gas chugging around in two boats, and so you have this other collateral damage, right? So you really have to think of what the cost-to-benefit ratio of all this is.
EM: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, all the pollution from such large scale operations. We just have no idea of the size of the problem.
CD: And the financial cost! The capital expenditures from all this. That’s an important point. First – is there any money for this? And if yes…who is going to pay for this? The plastic producers? They don’t even want to hear there is a problem at all.
The business model is very unclear, because a very large majority of this plastic – even if we could collect it – has no value what so ever, which is why it ended up here in the first place. And now it’s degraded and there is a mussel on it. Nothing you can do with that. So that’s another nail in the coffin for the cleanup narrative.
PREVENTING THE PLASTIC LEAK: UPSTREAM SOLUTIONS AND CELEBRATING SMALL VICTORIES
CD: If there are millions and millions of dollars available right now to solve the ocean plastic problem, it should go into preventing the leak.
EM: Yeah, making sure nothing else ever gets in the ocean starting now.
CD: Because right now we are talking about Millions of tonnes every year.
EM: At least eight million tonnes a year actually, that we will probably never be able to catch back.
CD: That’s a good way to put it. And here is the big idea, the more upstream we put our efforts, the more impact, and the cheaper it is to solve in the end.
EM: Upstream. And that’s what we are going to cover in the rest of the series.
CD: But you know I don’t like to give up, I hate to feel we can’t do anything.
EM: I feel you.
CD: I thought that I would ask Kim a different question then. Instead of “can we clean up the ocean”, I asked her how much she believes in a workable solution for reversing the trend – technically reversing the trend. I asked her to score from one to ten – ten being the strongest chances. You know what she told me?
EM: Oh boy?
KM: Oh boy. I’m going to put on my cranky pants for this one. I don’t see a lot of this. I see that we can make a lot of change on how much is going in, so I would say a four. But I would say that what has gone in and what is going in there is so high…and even the future estimates that this might be doubling in ten years are so high that I don’t see how we’re going to get rid of this problem – unless we’re cutting it off from getting into the ocean. Especially since we can’t even get any of it out yet.
EM: Okay, okay. Can we end on a positive note please?
CD: Yeah, let’s try. You are making me think of another point she made, just looking about the efforts to date.
KM: To be fair, these are all projects that have taken a lot of prototyping. They’ve taken a lot of work and iteration, and that’s where we’re at. We’re at the small-scale stuff. We do need bigger scale stuff, but we have to work up from these small victories too. And so I think the Ocean Cleanup Project should think about these type of models in the prototyping they’ve done, because the reality is that the Ocean Cleanup are five years in, and they’ve not removed one piece of trash from the ocean yet. They are twenty million dollars in. The Baltimore Trash Wheel has removed tonnes and tonnes of garbage and they’re only eight hundred thousand dollars in, so a fraction of the cost. And so, that’s a solution that’s working at removing plastic from the ocean. The Ocean Cleanup Project? They’re not yet.
EM: Working from the small victories.
CD: Local specific solutions…
EM: …to prevent plastic from leaking into the ocean in the first place. I see.
CD: You got it!
EM: Can we clean up the ocean? Not really. What’s already there is there and it’s going to be a sad reminder of how pathetic we are.
CD: Boyan Slat cannot save us. Although he is a remarkable entrepreneur with a lot of talent, which we hope he starts deploying towards preventing the eight million tonnes a year that reach the ocean in the first place.
EM: Basically, if you want to go to a beach cleanup on a weekend, or develop a local solution for your city, a student project, that kinda thing – you should. You really should. It’s important.
CD: But technological solutions should really focus on preventing plastic pollution not cleaning it.
EM: For the rest, all the money, media attention and human efforts are better off focusing on upstream solutions.
CD: The people who can really save us work in industry, product and service design, and last but not least policy makers can save us. They need to create the environment for the world to take another direction…but that’s for another day…
EM: Myth number one busted!
CD: We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration and entertainment-
EM: And less plastic pollution!
CD: Keep up the good work in the meantime.
The story of ocean plastic, at least the one we talk about now, began 20 years ago. Before then, nobody was making noise about how our oceans were filling up with with this everlasting nuisance. One man changed this when he showed the world what damage we were causing.
In this episode, we talk to the man himself, captain Charles Moore. And we ask: just how urgent is ocean plastic pollution? Is it as important as climate change?
Check out the Oceans series page for complementary resources & bonus materials.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Picture source: The Telegraph
Camille Duran [CD]: Ok Eleen are you ready?
Eleen Murphy [EM]: I am!
CD: This is real now, we said we would start this ocean series with a theme many human beings are talking about right now.
CD: It’s something we humans are ingesting on a daily basis, without even knowing it.
EM: humans & animals actually
CD: Right. Not only do we touch it and eat it, we also put it on our body all the time, it’s in our clothes, in our cosmetics…
EM: It’s everywhere in our lives
CD: And it’s also everywhere in the ocean.
CD: Plastic. Ocean plastic, Eleen. We promised we would tell crazy stories, we would investigate, infiltrate, hide microphones sometimes even – all this with the mission to bring clarity. Clarity on what needs to happen right now to solve this planetary emergency. And Here we are, chapter one.
EM: Chapter one, baby!
CD: You know, I feel we should have picked a subject a little bit easier to deal with to be frank.
CD: A subject like.. Ocean Plankton for instance.
EM: Right….Not sure it would get the same interest…
CD: Hi everyone and welcome to episode thirty-three of our series on Ocean Plankton. I am your host Jimmy Shrimp-
EM: Okay okay, let’s get started now, we have a lot on our plate.
CD: Right, Sorry. Yes, so some of you have asked how many episodes we are going to dedicate to ocean plastic and actually we’re not sure. We do not know. It could easily go up to 10 or 15 episodes. Who knows how far the wind of change will take us.
EM: Yes, because we have a lot of stories already!
CD: Like the story of how plastic in the sand makes baby turtles turn from female to male.
EM: What? really? haven’t heard that one.
CD: Yes true story, or the story of the hidden GPS tracking device following a plastic container across continents all the way to… A place you will uncover.
CD: Or the dark side of something we cannot talk about yet otherwise they are going to cancel our upcoming meetings.
EM: Okay, okay, the point is: you’d better push that subscribe button.
CD: Yes, open your favourite podcast app, search ‘Green Exchange’, subscribe and share with your friends and colleagues.
EM: It’s not even physically hard.
CD: It only takes one finger.
EM: Or…two at the most…
PLASTIC SOUP: HOW MUCH POLLUTION IS LEAKING INTO THE OCEAN?
CD: Now, time to get our hands dirty
EM: I guess we can just put them into the ocean then?
CD: Yeah…the problem is, I am in Brussels.
EM: Ah, that’s right, how is it going by the way?
CD: We’ll talk about it. In due time…again.
EM: You don’t want to share anything.
CD: I don’t want to get anyone lost, that’s all. As you know, we are going to unpack the European debate later on in the series, in relation to the upcoming Plastic Strategy to be put forward by the EU institutions. All I can tell you is that the European Commission staff is being bombarded with meeting requests, invitations, papers etc. mainly from industry who is trying to defend its interests I suppose.
CD: So it’s hot at the moment.
EM: I can only imagine, can’t wait to unpack all this!
CD: Let’s go then!
EM: Where should we start?
CD: I thought we should start from the visible part of the problem.
EM: Millions and millions of tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year.
CD: Good place to start. Because this is what we see in the first place. That’s the story we are all usually starting from. The albatros with plastic caps in the stomach, the big plastic gyres in the ocean.
EM: At this point I think everyone has seen images or videos of what’s going on.
CD: Yes, and in case you need more material on this we prepared a few links for you in the episode notes. But let me ask you this: what is the first thought that comes to mind when you see all that trash in the ocean?
EM: That we should clean this up.
CD: Right, logical reaction. Cleaning up. But here is the thing: we said we would not talk about cleanup remember?
[Audio segment from Episode #1]
EM: That’s still the plan right? Focusing on closing the tap?
CD: It is, but I realised one thing over the last few weeks. There are a lot of people who think we actually can cleanup the ocean.
EM: That’s true.
CD: Including policy makers and industry professionals, there is a lot of confusion on this. And most importantly, it’s taking too much attention away from the most productive areas of action.
EM: Like working upstream, on where all this plastic waste is coming from.
CD: Exactly, so then I thought, if we want to be comprehensive in our approach and truly advance the discussion, we should cover this issue once and for all. Can we cleanup the ocean?
EM: I don’t really know actually, technically I mean… how much can we clean…? So we should spend a bit of time on this today?
CD: I think so.
EM: Then we can focus on closing the tap without any regret.
CD: Yeah, let’s do this. And you know what? I scanned through 7.5 Billion people living on Planet Earth and I found THE person we need for a solid answer to this cleanup question. Someone who studied hard this very topic. She’s called Kim Martini and we’ll talk to her later on.
Kim Martini [KM]: And members of the Journal of Science community said “Look, can you do an independent review of this, because we really want to know whether this is real, because this is promising a lot”.
EM: I can’t wait, and what do we start with ?
CD: I was thinking of taking you up on a balloon. High up in the sky – figuratively. Just so we can take a bit of perspective before we put our head back in the water.
EM: Oh man, I’ve always wanted to take a ride on one of them! And yes, may be worth doing some contextualising.
CD: Let’s go, you want to pull that rope thing?
[Air balloon launches].
CD: Wow, my hair!
CD: I haven’t asked you if you’re afraid of heights.
EM: Well it’s too late now!
CD: I guess we’re trying to understand where this plastic problem stands among all the challenges we have to solve on this poor Planet.
EM: It’s a good idea, sometimes I don’t think we realise how big the issue is, or its implications. When did we start talking about ocean plastic by the way? Obviously it has become a hot topic now, but how long have we known this for?
CD: Well, it’s been about 20 years i would say. Actually, it’s been exactly 20 years that Captain Charles Moore has found the Great Pacific Garbage patch.
EM: Charles Moore! I love that guy.
CD: Yes, for those of you who don’t know him, Charles Moore is an oceanographer and racing boat captain. Since his first publications in 1997, he has become an icon of the movement, drew tons of media attention to the issue of ocean plastic, millions and millions of views on YouTube. He also conducted years of research, drove campaigns and more. Of course, many other people have also been active on the issue since then but, yeah, he has been a prominent voice on the subject matter.
EM: So we have around twenty years of awareness. It feels like a lot.
CD: Yes, and in twenty years, Charles Moore has not gotten more optimistic. I talked to him last week actually
EM: You talked to Charles Moore?
CD: Yes, I thought it would be good to exchange a few thoughts.
CD: Hah, he is a real Captain.
EM: What do you mean?
CD: Well, tone of voice of a captain, he behaves like a captain, he uses captain words…
EM: Haha, really?
CD: Yeah. Like, I asked him what’s the weather like in California today… just to small talk for a second… and here is what he replied.
CM: It is tropical, but Southern California weather for summer, with a little bit of tropical moisture, but warm. The clouds are clearing, they’re mostly inland, and people got some rain. But yeah…basically clear and sunny.
EM: That is a real Captain answer!
CD: Yes, no doubt I was talking to Charles Moore.
PLASTIC POLLUTION: STOP TALKING ABOUT CLEAN UP
CD: So I started by telling him about what we were planning for our investigation, and he cut me right away and said:
CM: Are you going to look at the causes for all that in a more deep manner? I mean, I’m getting tired of the beach cleanup, plastic bag ban mentality. We’ve got to attack the cause of the entire peking rationale of the current system. It’s losing its rational.
CD: I was not expecting this comment from him, and so we got into a big picture discussion, basically.
CM: The human condition is not improving anymore under competitive economic scenarios. The alternative energy sector has developed faster than the petroleum industry expected, which means they’re going to be focusing on other uses of petroleum other than fuel. And it’s becoming plastic as that alternative. And that alternative means that the junk we create – that lasts for seconds, gets discarded and has no afterlife or take-back infrastructure – is going to be the salvation of capitalism.
CD: Yes, this can come out as strong words, but we’ll talk more about it and you will connect the dots. For now, the only point I want to make here is that once you start looking into plastic, you arrive very quickly at systemic discussions that touch on economic models of our societies, world trade, biology, health, human rights etc.
EM: I see.
CD: And those bigger picture challenges are very difficult to ignore.
EM: I think I see where you’re going with this: we easily fall into band aid solutions because we don’t want to address the bigger picture.
CD: Exactly. You know the drill. And that’s why everyone like to talk about cleaning up the ocean for instance. Because this way we don’t have to change anything, we can just hope for cleanup technology & people to fix it.
CD: Anyway, back to Charles Moore, we talked for a few minutes about this and then got into other questions. Like, I also wanted to get a sense for how fast the amount of ocean plastic is increasing – since he has been following this from the beginning.
CM: We have a fifteen year timeline in the northern hemisphere, and in the stations we monitor in the North Pacific garbage patch, we’ve seen a sixty-fold increase in fifteen years. We’re just getting ready to publish this. But that’s by count. And it’s in the several hundreds by weight. It’s exponentially increasing in the North Pacific. Like I said, it looks like a polluted harbour, a dirty beach, out in the middle of the ocean for hundreds of kilometres.
EM: Sixty times more than fifteen years ago?
CD: Yes, by count. And in the hundreds by weight.
EM: Wow so it’s a biggie.
CD: Yes. That’s not a small issue.
PLASTIC POLLUTION: AS IMPORTANT AS CLIMATE CHANGE?
CM: There’s tremendous parity there between what’s happening with the planetary disruption by climate change, and the disruption of the marine environment by plastic. The marine environment is much larger than the land environment, it has much more habitat, and that habitat is completely being very insidiously penetrated by these synthetic polymers of every shape, size, colour and type. And it’s mimicking natural food and it’s acting like a predator – so it’s both predator and prey. As predator it tangles and it kills by making it impossible for creatures to move – it strangles them.
And as prey it kills by being consumed, absorbing all these pollutants and blocking digestive tracts – it’s basically putting the ocean on a plastic diet. It’s killing the albatross with plastic bottle caps, who are feeding them to their chicks, and the chicks die with plastic bottle caps in their stomachs. For that reason, I think we have to have this plastic conversation.
CD: And as you, we are going to reach a point where there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Industry is telling us we should expect production to increase threefold by 2050. So it’s not only what’s out there already but it’s also looking at the trends.
EM: So do you think that although ocean plastic is getting a lot of coverage at the moment… it’s not enough?
CD: I would say It’s probably not getting the amount of constructive discussions it deserves.
CM: It needs to be ranked as a planetary emergency along with chemical pollution, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.
CD: I don’t think this is overstated, actually.
EM: No probably not.
CD: So, on the framing part, that’s the first point I wanted us to make today. Ocean Plastic is not a small issue that is killing a couple of turtles and birds.
EM: It’s a planetary emergency.
CD: Yes. The theme is definitely getting more and more traction, a lot of us are talking about it, producing media, films, etc. But still, it’s far from being enough. Industry and public authorities really need to put their sh*t together, and quick.
[Landing the balloon sound]
CD: Alright we’re going to land now!
EM: Do you actually know what you’re doing?
CD: I am usually better at take offs than landings…
EM: Ohhhh god.
CD: Alright so, hang on…. There you go, nice and soft.
EM: Nice one, you may have a career as a balloon pilot!
CD: Right, I’m actually thinking about it.
EM: So, where to start? Shouldn’t we start by cleaning the ocean?
CD: [strong French accent]: You’re pulling my leg???
EM: [Laughs]. Yes I am!
CD: Okay, let’s demonstrate once and for all that ocean cleanup is the wrong battle to fight. Period.
EM: Alright, convince me. Hey, I feel like a Myth Buster!
CD: A myth buster…Oh, you give me an idea. One second! That’s right…just wait one second…
[Ghostbusters theme plays].
EM: Oh no…what have I started? I’ve created a monster.
CD: Okay, here is what we’re going to do. Thanks for the idea! I see it now
Through this investigation, Eleen, we are going to dismantle a lot of harmful narratives. Okay? That’s the plan. Like the plastic eating bug story, or oh, plastic helps us fight climate change or … we can cleanup the ocean. All those are myths we are going to bust.
CD: We are myth busters.
CD: Well here it is:
[Ghostbusters music plays]
CD: That’s the new jingle for our myth busting episodes. Come on let’s practice a couple of times.
EM: Camille, people are going to hate us.
CD: Everyone loves this song!
[Eleen and Camille sing the song].
EM: Okay, let’s get this over with. Onto the myth busting now!
CD: No, no, no, we are going to close that episode and start a new one called: myth busting: We can cleanup the ocean or something like that.
EM: Alright, a new episode then…
10 minute mind-body exercise for you to practice anytime you need. By yoga teacher and massage therapist Julia Zatta in Mixtape 10: An Alternative to Exercise Apps, produced by Green Exchange.