Collecting plastic waste from the ocean is a more complicated task than it seems. Extracting them can harm some living beings that have made them their home and their degradation and fragmentation in the water makes it difficult to reuse them
Plastic pollution in the oceans has become a global problem. It is estimated that 14.5 million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea every year.
Over the last few years, numerous platforms have emerged in order to reduce the impact of plastics on nature. But can we consider this a valid solution to the problem generated by the uncontrolled dumping of this waste?
Plastic and its interaction with the ecosystem
The life of plastics does not end once they reach the sea. The presence of some plastic elements, such as fishing gear in the case of ghost fishing, can have a negative effect on the survival of marine ecosystems.
But the plastics present in the marine environment can also be used by numerous organisms that need to live attached to a surface. They can be home to bacteria, polyps, molluscs and other living beings that otherwise could not have colonized that space, reforesting an environment that could have previously been devastated.
As with artificial reefs, the presence of these new substrates can foster the creation of ecosystems that will eventually become more complex, increasing the area’s biodiversity. That is why sometimes its removal from the environment once time has passed and an ecosystem has been created around the waste can generate greater destruction than letting it remain.
To this possible destruction of the environment must be added other factors that make it difficult to collect plastic waste, especially in the long term.
A material that loses its integrity
On the one hand, the continuous physical and chemical stress suffered by plastic in the sea causes the fragmentation of macroplastics into micro and nanoplastics, with a diameter of less than 5 mm.
Microplastics, despite their small size, cause numerous negative effects in the marine environment. Its small size makes its detection and recovery almost impossible. In addition, its composition is so varied that its reuse is almost impossible.
Larger plastics are easier to detect, but this is not an easy task. Their buoyancy and low weight allow them to travel long distances before reaching new shores. In addition, large accumulation zones can occur, as occurs in the great garbage island of the Pacific.
On the other hand, the heterogeneity and loss of quality that these residues present reduce the possibility that they will be returned to their useful life, assuming that we can recover them.
The environmental conditions, the weather and the biological activity of marine microorganisms alter the integrity and chemical composition of plastics. This modification results in a decrease in the quality of the plastic as a raw material and, therefore, in a loss of interest on the part of the plastic buyer.
An unprofitable business
The lack of economic profitability in the reuse of recycled marine plastic is one of the main problems that the industry is facing right now. The problem is that its low economic value means that the necessary activities to extract it are not carried out.
Added to the low quality of the material are the high costs associated with the collection and cleaning of plastic waste. Plastic from the sea must be “captured” and brought to land. Likewise, it is necessary to clean the biological remains or other contaminants that have adhered to its surface.
At present, efforts are being made to raise awareness and encourage fishermen to dedicate part of their activity to collecting plastics and especially not to return the plastic collected during the extraction of fish to the sea. However, the scant benefit it brings them makes it difficult to incorporate this economic activity into the sector.
All these factors make a product of lower quality more expensive than that of new plastic, already cheaper, and that of waste that is already in the recycling cycle from its disposal. This is decisive for companies when choosing the raw material for their products. Consequently, plastic continues to be produced instead of recycling or reusing that recovered from the sea.
Today, there are companies that offer products made from recycled or reclaimed plastic. However, if we look closely at the raw material, it is likely that it does not come from the sea, but has been recovered before being discarded. The waste will be purchased directly from its generator, eliminating the costs associated with its recovery and treatment.
Necessary changes in the current model
It is necessary to develop and promote the recovery of used plastic as a product for use and not as waste. This would be the best way to prevent it from ending up in the sea, since the industry would capture it before it is discarded.
Although there are currently initiatives at European and global level that promote the use of recycled plastic in industry, it is necessary to consolidate the implementation of circular economy practices. The production companies have to incorporate this dynamic of reuse in their production processes. The consumer must demand environmentally sensitive products and be willing to pay a little more for them.
For this, technological advances are necessary to help make better use of the waste already generated, improving production and recycling processes. However, the solutions go beyond technological innovation. Changes are needed in the legislation that encourages recycling and reuse, prohibiting actions such as the export of garbage outside the European Union. And beyond politics, it is necessary to promote social practices that help reuse plastic in accordance with the principles of the circular economy.
As can be deduced after this analysis, once the plastic reaches the sea, the problem becomes increasingly complex. The longer a piece of waste spends in the ocean, the more likely it is that it will never make it out of the ocean. However, preventing plastics from arriving requires tackling the problem from different angles, seeking technological, political and social innovations.
This article has also been written by Lourdes Reig Puig, Professor-researcher at the Department of Agrifood Engineering and Biotechnology, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech, Martín Federico Alba, Research Support Technician at CREDA – UPC – IRTA, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech, Riccardo Palazzolo Henkes, Research Technician, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech; and has been published in ‘The Conversation‘.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.