We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, who are still here, and we honor with gratitude the land itself and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.
Earth Day – The Plastics Problem
We need to stop thinking of plastic just as a waste problem, one that can be solved by changing consumers’ habits alone and stopping using plastic bags. We need to think of plastics as a climate problem, as a product that creates damage along all its journey, from the drilling up of hydrocarbons to the spread of microplastics. And that can only be addressed in a systemic way. Single-use plastics account for half of the plastic we use each year with an average useful life of 12 to 15 minutes but can take up to 500 years to disappear!
In March, 2022 representatives from over 170 nations at the UN Environment Assembly adopted an initiative to end plastic pollution, committing all these countries to participate in creating, by 2024, a legally binding agreement that addresses the full life cycle of plastics, from production to design to disposal.
1. Plastics breed GHG – For 99 percent of all plastics the starting point is fossil fuel hydrocarbons. Oil, gas and coal are extracted and refined to produce plastic and other synthetic chemicals. Studies indicate that if nothing is done, the production of single-use plastic alone will contribute to more than 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
2. Once plastics enter the environment, landfill, are dispersed in soil or water, they start a process of breaking down into micro and nanoparticles. And this process of breaking down emits powerful gases such as methane, ethylene and CO2. And that’s true for both traditional and biodegradable plastics.
3. On the surface of microplastics, new microbial communities can grow. We call them the plastisphere. And their biological activity also releases additional CO2 and nitrous oxide into the environment, creating the possibility of further magnifying the climate problem. It means that microplastic can also impair the growth and the photosynthesis capacity of phytoplankton, which are the microorganisms producing much of the oxygen we breathe. But also microplastics can have toxic effects on zooplankton, and the health of these organisms [is] essential for the functioning of all aquatic food webs.
4. Microplastics bind with the so-called marine snow, which are made out of the clumps of bacteria, plankton and other organic material that sinks down into the ocean depth, acting like a biological carbon pump. But microplastics risk affecting this marine snow and potentially decreasing the capacity of the ocean to absorb and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. And microplastics can be decreasing the reflective properties of snow and ice, potentially accelerating the melting of glaciers and polar ice.
5. Plastics are everywhere and so are microplastics. plastics are present in furniture, construction materials, cars, appliances, electronics and countless other things. Microplastics are everywhere, from the mountaintops of Everest to the deepest sediment in the Mariana Trench. They are in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. They are now found in our bloodstream and our lungs. And personally, the most terrifying, in the placenta of our unborn children.
It is estimated that 75 to 199 million tons of plastic are in our oceans. It is increasing 9-14 million tons a year. If nothing is done, it could increase to between 23 and 37 tons per year by 2040!.
Cleaning up existing plastics in the oceans
Dutch inventor Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup company with the goal to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. They plan to do this by cleaning up the legacy plastic – the plastic already floating in the ocean – and then by stopping the sources of plastic flowing into our oceans.
Here is his story :
System 2 of the cleanup called jenny is being towed at a very slow speed about 1.5 knots by two large vessels through the ocean catching floating ocean plastic along the way below the surface. (It is completely open in the center allowing for fish to escape by simply swimming down below the barrier as water flows through the system)
Ocean Cleanup’s floating systems are designed to capture plastics ranging from small pieces, just millimeters in size, up to large debris, including massive, discarded fishing nets (ghost nets), which can be tens of meters wide.
To capture the plastic, the company creates artificial coastlines using two ships to concentrate and guide the plastic creating a loop. The coastlines are designed to produce circulating currents. The system is comprised of a long U-shaped barrier that guides the plastic into a retention zone at its far end, a collection zone.
After a period of time the vessels connect both ends of the giant loop to one ship while the other ocean cleanup vessel maneuvers to the retention zone and pulls in the net after it reaches capacity. The net is sealed. The plastics are collected and later sorted before bringing it back to shore to be processed into pelletized plastic for manufacturing recycled goods. This which goes back to to actually continue the the funding of the continued cleanup.
Their target is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” which is located hundreds
of miles offshore in the middle of the pacific ocean between California and Hawaii. It is about the size of Texas. This is only one of five ocean garbage patches.
Results have been slow since they have gone through a design change but they are encouraged with where they are on the design. From the BBC -“Boyan said the system has so far cleaned up almost 200,000 kilograms (440,000 lbs) of ocean plastic. While this represents just 0.2% of the 100 million kilograms of plastic contained in the world’s largest patch of plastic rubbish, he said it was still worth it: “Everything big starts small, right?”
Slat has plans to develop System 3 which expands System 2 in size and magnitude. It would be or one and a half miles across increasing its ability to collect more plastic. They hope to deploy 10 cleanup systems every 5 years greatly reducing the amount
of plastic. After fleets of systems are deployed into every ocean gyre, combined with source reduction, The Ocean Cleanup projects to be able to remove 90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040.
Ocean Cleanup has been hard at work deploying updated river interceptors all
over the world in an attempt to stop the flow of plastic pollution in the mouths of rivers which is the source of plastic in the ocean.