Humanity’s Plastic Footprint (IV)

By: Gail Kulisch

[Gail Kulisch, a Virginia Tech Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) alumni and an environmental consultant with experience in marine pollution and remediation. In Part I of this four-part series, Kulisch introduced the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its impact; in Part II she discussed what makes plastics such a persistent water problem; and Part III presents the path plastics take from production to accumulation in the world’s oceans. In this final installment, Ms. Kulisch offers a discussion of the alternatives and initiatives for preventing plastic pollution in ocean environments.]

Many entities are initiating programs and funding grants to prevent further deterioration of our environment. In September of 2016, over 136 new initiatives on marine conservation and protection were agreed upon by the countries participating in the third Our Ocean Conference hosted by U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Department of State, 2016) In his remarks, Secretary Kerry noted that five countries had announced nationwide plastic bag bans while the U.S. announced the development of two cutting-edge satellites to send into space to better understand “what is happening to the oceans” (Kerry 2016). Commitments also include:

  • Two new satellites for ocean surveillance to “better understand what is happening in the oceans and make sure that we understand all the options to be able to adapt to them” (Kerry, 2016).
  • Enforcement of rogue fishing and the illegal drift nets they use which become part of the ocean trash. (Kerry, 2016)
  • Forty significant new or expanded marine protected areas where fishing is limited and nets are excluded.

Private research and advocacy organizations are also actively involved in protection of the world’s oceans and ecosystems from plastic pollution. Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google launched Global Fishing Watch, an online technology that allows anyone free access to monitor and track the activities of the world’s largest commercial fishing vessels in near real-time (Borne 2016).

Organizations such as the non-profit Healthy Seas recover abandoned fishing nets. (More Ocean Less Plastic, 2016). Healthy Seas, with the help of volunteer divers, recovers, stores, and then transforms the abandoned fishing nets into ECONYL® nylon yarn. They create and produce fashionable and sustainable textile products from the yarn. Their advocacy also includes telling the ‘waste to wear’ story (Colabello 2016). The Five Gyres Institute conducts research expeditions around the world to assess the impacts of plastics and promote awareness and action to eliminate this threat to our world’s oceans

Scripps institute is actively engaged and currently working to raise funds for a trip to the South Pacific gyre, sometime within the next two years and noted that “while the North Pacific patch appeared as large as the Continental US, its South Pacific cousin is suspected to be about four times as large, roughly the size of all of Western and part Eastern Europe” (Coastal Care 2016).

One of the earlier leaders in this area is Algalita, a research organization located in the San Diego area of California. In 1997, Captain Charles Moore came upon the Pacific Plastic Patch when he was returning from the Trans-Pacific Yacht Race noting then that it resembled a “disgusting, plastic cesspool” (Algalita 2016). Captain Moore returned from the race and established the organization to research the problem. He and his colleagues have expanded their research and advocacy on this topic by visiting five oceans. Algalita is focused on the challenge of plastic pollution and its impacts to marine life and ecosystems.

The organization “envisions a marine environment that is healthy, sustainable and productive for all living creatures, free from plastic pollution” (Algalita 2012). To help achieve this vision and inform the public, Algalita has built a concept model which educates citizen on specific actions within a matrix of initiatives. The organization’s philosophy is centered around the nation that it can best combat the crisis through research, education, and action. While the most common hierarchy to guide consumer’s actions is “reduce, reuse, recycle”, which emerged during the 1980’s as part of the environmental movement, Algalita has built a complementary and more detailed educational model to influence consumer behavior with respect to wastes and plastics (Algalita 2016).

The non-profit Healthy Seas is also taking action against waste fishing nets. They dive for abandoned fishnets, help prevent marine litter and raise public awareness of marine protection (Healthy Seas 2016). The organization Coastal Care provides an extensive collection of information and analysis on the topic of plastic pollution in the world’s waterways and specifically lists 13 additional organizations working to address the concern of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans (Guem 2016). In addition to Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine and Algalita Research Foundation and Coastal Cleanup, these organizations include:

The Five Gyres Institute also researches plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. They work in collaboration with Algalita Research Marine Research Foundation and Pangea Explorations (Bongiorno 2016).

Another innovative organization, The Ocean Cleanup Project is developing technology to remove both the large as well as the smaller elements of plastic particles in the oceans. The Ocean Cleanup Project is being led by Boyan Slat, a young entrepreneur, visionary, and inventor from Denmark.

Convenience and The Challenges That Remain.

Convenience, the easy access to external resources, makes life comfortable. Our reliance on comfort and convenience is getting us into a runaway scenario of losing finite planetary resources. It’s making us forget that we are an integral part of life and nature, that we partake in death and decay by virtue of being alive. It reinforces in us the fear of scarcity which no amount of additional resources can assuage. It deprives us of opportunities to figure out creative solutions to problems. ~ Kastan 2012

While the benefits of plastic add value to our lives, they are not achieved without a downside. “There is no argument that plastics have made our lives interesting, convenient, and safe. But like any other material or technology, the use of plastics comes with a very definite price tag. During the period (1961-2012) that saw a population increase of about 230%, that of wood, steel, and cement consumption grew by 160, 426, and 1100% respectively. Plastics consumption in the same period grew by over 4800%” (Andrady 2015).

The responsible development, production, use, and disposal of plastics must be a societal imperative as “once plastic enters our waterways, oceans, and seas, they will remain there for a significant period of time.” Plastics biodegrade extremely slowly, especially when they are in seawater or sediment. This suggests that all plastics that entered the oceans since the beginning of the plastics age (in 1950s) still very likely remain accumulated intact in the marine sediment (Andrady 2015). That consequence alone should be enough to motivate actions to keep plastics from entering our waterways.

Our challenge is to change our perception and experience of convenience while actively managing its outcomes. We can experience the convenience of plastics while managing our waste streams such that they “do no harm” to “patient earth.” Convenience is ingrained in our society. We place value on this factor through our choices and behaviors. The imperative is to instill greater value in our oceans, a natural resource that holds 97% of the earth’s water, modulates our weather patterns, and provides the conditions for a rich diversity of aquatic species that feed millions of people around the world.

Governments, non-profits, responsible industries, portions of the maritime community, civic organizations, and the plastics industry must recognize their respective roles and act aggressively to limit plastics in the environment. Amongst the many initiatives from these entities, active research is conducted at sea.

As part of the cadre of early pioneers to study plastic pollution, the research and educational organization, Algalita, established by the Charles Moore who first identified the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, was one of the first to spearhead the research methodology for collecting and analyzing microplastic samples from the ocean (Algalita 2016). They continue to advance education and research through field expeditions. On 3 November, 2016, Algalita researchers departed for a research voyage to study plastic particle pollution in the Southern Hemisphere. As of this writing, they are currently off the northwest coast of Ecuador.

Epilogue: The author hopes to use her nautical knowledge and experience, combined with her interest in addressing the challenges of plastic pollution in our oceans, to support worthy research and advocacy efforts such as the work of Algalita in the future.


Gail Kulisch is an alumni of the Executive Master of Natural Resources program at Virginia Tech and the Owner and Managing Principal of BTG Ventures LLC, which supports development and implementation of safety and security initiatives, provides leadership and technical expertise to disaster response operations, and advances environmental stewardship.  A retired Coast Guard Officer, Kulisch served 28 years on Active Duty, including assignments in marine environmental protection, response, and remediation before retiring from military service and forming her own consulting organization.  She is a 1983 graduate of Holy Cross College (B.A. in Chemistry) and earned a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from UCLA in 1990.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: allison_b216; NOAAPeretz Partensky; Bo Eide; and The People Speak!.


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