April 22 this year marks the 52nd Earth Day. The theme, “Invest In Our Planet,” couldn’t be more fitting. While awareness and environmental consciousness has undoubtedly improved over the years, the magnitude of our current ecological crisis can be overwhelming.
While plastic continues to riddle our seas, not all hope is lost. We’ve learned to think out of the box, with some groundbreaking strategies to combat pollution, particularly plastic in the ocean. We’ve put together a list of five innovations that help clean our seas, hopefully inspiring you to continue to strive for change.
The History of Earth Day
The first Earth Day was in 1970, providing an emerging voice for environmental consciousness. Until this point, the U.S. was mainly oblivious to environmental concerns or the threats to human health. After Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring was released in 1962, she set the stage for change. The book brought to light the links between pollution and public health. Carson herself had breast cancer at the time.
After the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin announced the idea for a teach-in on college campuses. He channeled the energy from anti-war protests with an emerging public consciousness about pollution. For maximum participation, the teach-in took place on April 22, between Spring Break and final exams.
By 1990, a group of environmental leaders had emerged, joining Senator Nelson. Once again, they decided to organize another significant campaign for the planet, and this time, Earth Day went global. It boosted recycling efforts worldwide, paving the way for the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The summit produced a new blueprint for international action on environmental issues, guiding international cooperation and policies into the 21st century.
By 2000, the Earth Day focus shifted to global warming with a push for clean energy. Now armed with over 5000 environmental groups in 184 countries, Earth Day leveraged the power of the internet to organize activists around the world. From Gabon in Africa to Washington D.C, hundreds of thousands of people gathered with a clear message to world leaders demanding decisive action.
Since then, every year, on April 22, more than 1 billion individuals have mobilized for action. Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world. Today, the fight for a clean environment continues with a new sense of urgency. EARTHDAY.ORG aims to build a cohesive, coordinated, diverse movement to drive change and make an impact.
Where Are We Now?
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans every minute. Plastic in the ocean is a global problem. From 1950 to 2017, we produced approximately 9.2 billion tons of plastic. Of that, 7 billion tons became plastic waste. Each year, we produce 300 million tons of plastic, 50% of which is single-use.
An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year. This adds to the existing 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste already floating in the sea. While we’ve all heard of disturbing phenomena like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, most people don’t realize that 70% of our debris sinks into the ocean’s ecosystem. Only 15% floats and 15% lands on our beaches. As plastic decomposes over hundreds of years, it breaks down into micro pieces, never really disappearing from the ocean. It’s particularly hazardous to fish, mammals, and sea life, as it releases dangerous toxins and chemicals.
Microplastics and nanoplastics are the subjects of severe environmental concern, especially since they display different properties from their corresponding bulk materials. The scary reality is that we’re still uncovering the full implications of microplastics. For example, microplastics were just found in human blood for the first time. Current research suggests various poisonous compounds, increasing the toxicity and transportation of plastic. Their improved buoyancy, durability, and lightweightness mean they can travel great distances in a short time. They’re already gaining access to microbes and organisms at the bottom of the food chain in the sea, giving phytoplankton a whole new makeup.
Effective waste management is no longer a nice-to-have but an absolute necessity. We must dispose of waste in the right way, whether at home, as a big business, or through state policy. It affects human health, animals, marine life, and of course, our environment. With microplastics becoming a growing concern, we need to find solutions to reduce, reuse, or reinvent plastic to clean up our oceans.
5 Strategies That Help To Clean Our Oceans
While the most critical solution to clean up our oceans is to prevent plastic from entering our waterways, we also need to combat the current plastic levels. Here are five strategies that will reduce plastic in the ocean, helping us fix some of the damage we’ve done.
Turning Fishing Nets Into Energy
Thanks to the oceanic currents and winds of the North Pacific, large volumes of marine debris accumulate in Hawaii. A significant portion of this debris is fishing nets. In fact, about 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of discarded fishing gear called Ghost Fishing Gear. These discarded nets are hugely detrimental to the environment, affecting animals and their habitat.
Fishers, divers, and local community groups regularly remove the fishing nets, but what do they do with them? Instead of adding them to the already congested landfills, The Hawaii Nets To Energy Program was born. Nets To Energy is a multi-partner marine debris group that aims to turn unwanted waste into usable electricity.
The first step is appropriate disposal opportunities. Pacific Ocean Producers (POP) provides maintained bins at strategic ports for commercial fishers to unload gear easily. This no-cost disposal is also available for local removal groups, providing a centralized location for marine debris collections. When the bins are full, POP transports them to Schnitzer Steel Hawaii Corporation, a scrap metal facility in Oahu.
Once Schnitzer Steel has chopped the nets into smaller pieces, they’re suitable for combustion at the Honolulu H-power energy-from-waste facility run by Covanta Energy. The nets are burned at the facility, producing steam which drives a turbine that produces usable energy. By banding together, these organizations have created a genuine solution to manage marine debris and prevent more discarded nets from entering our oceans. This particular waste-to-energy operation is incredibly effective at turning an ocean pollutant into usable energy, keeps emissions low, and sorts out recyclable waste. However, there are criticisms of this technology as a whole. These include the harmful emissions coming from some operations and the possible disincentive for traditional recycling practices.
2. Using Plastic Alternatives
Prioritizing alternatives to petroleum-based materials is one way to reduce plastic in the ocean. 89% of the plastic in the sea is single-use. It takes up to 450 years for this type of plastic to break down, and even when it does, it creates microplastic that continues to have adverse effects on marine and human life.
A major contributor to plastic debris in the ocean is Styrofoam. Commonly used for protective packaging, takeaway food containers or coffee cups, and packing peanuts, Styrofoam releases toxic chemicals as it decomposes. That’s where Cruz Foam comes in with a bio-sustainable plastic alternative.
Cruz Foam’s product uniquely harnesses the power of naturally sourced biopolymers, making the product compostable. It decomposes into organic matter, enriching the earth rather than flooding it with toxins like its plastic counterpart. Cruz Foam products are the ultimate circular material, derived from all naturally occurring ingredients.
You can fully manipulate Cruz Foam material to meet small or large-scale packaging needs. On top of that, you can create the product using existing manufacturing equipment, making it a “green” business transition.
3. Cleaning Surface Level Plastics
Many people don’t realize that rivers are the primary source of plastic brought to the ocean, carrying waste from the land into our waterways. There are many initiatives to remove the plastic already in the sea, but The Ocean Clean Up aims to intercept it. Their focus is prevention and removal.
The Ocean Clean Up has identified 1000 rivers worldwide that feed the most significant volumes of plastic into the sea, prioritizing efforts in these locations to make a tangible difference in the next five years. Their device, known as The Interceptor, is set up strategically in the river to ensure we “close the tap” on waste.
The Interceptor is a scalable solution that relies on a solar-powered conveyor belt. The river’s current moves debris into the conveyor belt, which continuously runs, moving waste into the shuttle system. The shuttle automatically distributes trash across six dumpsters, storing up to 50m³ of trash at a time.
When the dumpsters are almost full, The Interceptor automatically sends a text message to the local operators who deploy a barge to empty their contents. Once on land, the debris is sent to local waste management facilities, and the empty dumpsters are returned to The Interceptor, ready for the next round of waste. On top of that, The Interceptor is connected to the internet, allowing the team to continuously monitor performance, gathering critical insights from the collected data.
The Ocean Clean Up project prioritizes closing the tap of harmful debris flowing freely into the sea. While this is essential in our efforts to reduce plastic in the ocean, it only combats the plastic on the surface. We know that 70% of the plastic in the sea is below the surface, meaning there’s still more to be done. However, The Interceptor helps us stem the flow of more waste, giving us time to right our wrongs.
4. Beach Clean Ups And Individual Action
Reducing plastic in the ocean relies on everyone playing their part. Yes, bigger projects need to take place to alter the current problem drastically, but individual action has an impact. We also know that most marine debris comes from human activities on land, eventually entering our seas from various points.
Beach Clean Ups aren’t a new concept, but their impact is somewhat surprising. For example, The Surfrider Foundation cleaned up over 300,000 pounds of debris in 2019 representing just one organization that is hosting these events. Beach Clean Ups are relatively easy to execute and allow different groups to come together to remove plastic and debris from the shoreline. Clean-ups like this have the potential to make a long-lasting impact given the valuable data they provide.
In 2019, The Surfrider Foundation launched a new Beach Clean Up tool, allowing them to track the findings from local beach clean-ups. They can then identify the familiar sources of debris, raise awareness, and drive education for action. Participating in beach clean-ups removes “trash blindness,” forcing individuals to notice debris and waste wherever they go. Recognizing the magnitude of the problem is the first step to changing behavior.
4Ocean takes it further, turning ocean plastic into bracelets that they sell online to fund future clean-ups. They’ve recently enlisted the help of a new solar-powered beach robot capable of filtering microplastic. The machine operates 30 times faster than a human, honing in on the tiny pieces of plastic more difficult for us to collect by hand.
5. Legislative Action
Policing the sea has always been difficult. It’s beyond any territorial jurisdiction, following broader international laws that fail to solve the real issues. Change is afoot, and it’s time legislative action reflected the state of affairs.
In February 2022, representatives from more than 100 countries attended the One Ocean Summit in France, pledging to take action to save oceans from illegal fishing and plastic pollution. The Summit produced a 43-nation agreement to create a treaty to regulate our oceans more sustainably.
Leaders worldwide are starting to take a stand on plastic pollution, with more and more local policies coming into play. In March 2022, The California Ocean Protection Council approved a plan to reduce microplastic pollution in the sea. This includes precautionary management of microplastic pollution and upstream source reduction. Whether it’s eliminating products entirely or introducing new projects like stormwater infiltration, the California legislature now recognizes the need for a comprehensive plan to address plastic in the ocean.
Earth Day 2022
As we celebrate Earth Day on April 22, take stock of your plastic use. Yes, we can invest in sustainable solutions to prevent more plastic in the ocean and prioritize removing the existing debris, but it’s essential that we also adopt a new behavior. We need to think twice before using single-use plastic and understand its impact on the bigger picture.
Get inspired by these five strategies to reduce plastic in the ocean, pushing innovation to find long-term solutions to a genuine crisis.
Are you looking to get started with a plastic alternative? Try Cruz Foam today!