Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ocean Plastic Greenwashing

While the concern over ocean plastic continues to grow, a new threat associated with it that needs our more immediate attention: greenwashing. There is an ever growing list of companies and publicity-seeking celebrities that are trying to leverage this problem into cash in their pockets by giving the illusion that they are solving or helping to solve the problem.

Adidas is the latest to join in this hoax with an ocean plastic shoe. The Huffington Post has a nice takedown on this scam so I won't go any further. Just last week there was a Dutch engineering group that proposed making roads out of ocean plastic. Last year Pharrell Williams proposed making blue jeans from ocean plastic. Before that there was also the Elexctrolux vacuum cleaners (a grand total of 5 were made and were never for sale to the public), surfboards and the Method hand soap bottle. These are all the items that I am aware of, so there could be more.

The common thread through all of these is that the "Ocean Plastic" that they are using is really "Beach Plastic", plastic gathered on beaches while it is still in large pieces that have suffered minimal degradation.
Method's comments::
"The framework that we're using is that there are a number of beach cleanup organizations that work here in California and that work in Hawaii that are regularly cleaning up this plastic..."
And Pharrell said
"The PET bottles are collected from the coastlines after washing in from the ocean."
(Bottles that haven't washed out into the ocean will apparently be overlooked for this project.)

The reason that all these efforts are using Beach Plastic and not Ocean Plastic is that collecting ocean plastic and doing anything with it is (other than burning it as fuel) is not going to happen. This is what plastic in a gyre looks like:
Ocean plastic - as it really is
A view of an ocean gyre - see any plastic?
Tiny, tiny pieces of degraded plastic. The degradation pretty much ensures that even if recovered (How? Filtration would simultaneously collect a tremendous amount of living creatures from the ocean, arguably "killing the wildlife in order to save them"), the plastic would not be strong enough to make anything useful. Additionally, the recovered plastic would be a mixture of many types which would need to be sorted prior to recycling, something that cannot be done economically with such small pieces.

Sorry, but ocean plastic is going to remain as ocean plastic, and no company or celebrity should give you any impression otherwise. That is why prevention is to key. Plastic has no business being in the ocean, so do your part to make sure it doesn't end up there. Supporting these businesses in their greenwashing efforts is not part of the solution.

Previous Years

July 23, 2012 - Wrap-Up on the Nylon-12 Shortage

July 23, 2010 - A New Nano-Clay for Polymer Reinforcemen

July 23, 2010 - Isn't this Obvious??


Anonymous said...

"...killing the wildlife in order to save them..." An excellent sentence, but sadly this is environmental groups' modus operandi. Typically listing a species as endangered - together with its legal ramifications - causes declines in the population of that species. Modifications to the environment and restrictions on habitat use typically disrupt species populations and lead to declines in populations of the supposedly protected species.

It brings to the fore the question, "Well, if it isn't working, why do these groups persist?" Part of the answer is that species protection is not necessarily about protecting the species in question. Far too often it is about political and economic warfare by legislation and bureaucracy against productive land-using people. The irony is that many of these people are in truly resource-renewable industries that contribute materially not only to the well-being of our society, but also to the well-being of the environments in which they operate.

Other parts of the answer (and I suspect, most relevant in this case) have to do with feel-good environmental activism, where a measure is taken because it looks good, and endorsed because it's popular; and "pet hypothesis bias" where environmental scientists desperately hang on to a hypothesis (which then becomes the basis for policy) long after contrary evidence is apparent.

孙尉翔 said...

People are very easily worried. But they are also easily assured.