Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Response to the NY Times: "Choking the Oceans with Plastic"

The New York Times had an editorial on Monday by Captain Charles S. Moore, a long-time, outspoken advocate for raising awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean gyres. The editorial tells of the plastic pollution that he observed during his latest trip in the Pacific. While I do not doubt the veracity of his anecdotes, Moore uses a small subset of his observations to portray a wholly inaccurate image of what the pollution is like in the gyres in the Pacific and other oceans.

Throughout the editorial, Moore attempts to paint an image that all this pollution is concentrated together in a large mass. The sad reality is the pollution in the gyres is a very dilute soup made up of mostly small pieces of plastic, most less than 2/10th of an inch across. I say sad, as that very dilution is what makes recovery of these plastics impossible. The lack of concentration makes recovery not only economically unfeasible but even more challenging is that any attempt to filter these pieces from the ocean would also result in the removal of plankton and other small forms of sea life, potentially creating a larger problem than that of the plastic itself.

Moore’s imagery is created by using inaccurate words such as “glutinous” to describe the accumulation zones, and by describing a unique large collection of buoys from oyster aquaculture as an “island” that could be walked upon. Were these collections of pollution that large and concentrated, satellite image of these atolls would be readily available. The absence of these photos is proof that such “islands” do not exist in the gyres.

Moore also observed an “enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009.” This finding is inconsistent with a recent study showing that the amount of plastic in the oceans is remaining constant.

Moore also makes a large number of inaccurate statements regarding plastic processing in just a few sentences: “Plastics are a nightmare to recycle. They are very hard to clean. They can melt at low temperatures, so impurities are not vaporized.” Plastics are hardly a nightmare to recycle. The demand for recycled plastics is outstripping the supply resulting in ever increasing prices for them. Recycled plastics are so valuable that their theft is a common occurrence. Indeed, the Los Angeles Police Department has a 5-member task force specializing in just the theft of plastics.

With the exception of agricultural plastics that are heavily soiled, few recyclers complain of dirty, uncleanable plastics. While plastics do melt at temperatures lower than that needed for melting metals, the organics volatiles in the plastics are easily vaporized at the processing temperatures used. This is in fact, not desired as the volatiles can include antioxidants and other chemicals used to protect the plastics from rapid degradation over their lifetime. As they are lost, additional amounts of these additives are needed to replace what was lost.

All of these exaggerations and misstatements of Moore will do nothing to solve to problem of pollution in the ocean and only lead to a loss of credibility. His well-documented biases show a lack of the objectively needed to address the problem in the honest manner. Pushing for more bag bans will not solve the problem.

In the end, the problem will be solved by what was proposed in the closing line of the editorial: We need to “shut off the flow of plastic to the sea”. Finally, that is something we both can agree on.

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