Difference between Plastic Pollution and Marine Debris
Full-length article and recording
Managing Plastic Waste and Mitigating the Garbage Patches
Thanks to the Earth Engineering Center for making this knowledge sharing possible
Katrina Mitchell (Co-founder, be Waste Wise)
Please explain plastic pollution and marine debris. Why two terms?
Dr. Nicholas Mallos (Ocean Conservancy): That’s a fantastic question and it’s one that gets tossed a lot around and in many ways creates a lot of ambiguity around the issue. Marine debris has largely been around for the past three decades, starting back in 1986 when ocean services started the international coastal cleanup as well as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in their work on the issue of marine debris in the past decades.
Marine debris really addresses all anthropogenic derived debris or trash that is in our ocean and washes on to our shores. Much of that is plastic and over the years we have seen that the majority of marine debris is in fact made of plastic. There are other forms of marine debris out there as well that too pose their own type of threats. Pressure treated lumber, large fishing nets that may not be synthetic in nature and other forms of debris. So, marine debris certainly has a place in our vernacular. But over the years, looking at international coastal cleanup data (findings of Charlie Moore’s initial expedition and subsequent expeditions in the North Pacific gyre and gyres around the world), we have seen that the majority of the items out there are plastic. When we start looking at the implications of those debris items, we see that those that pose the greatest threat both individual marine organism as well as large scale marine ecosystems are plastics.
Particularly as we think about the term plastic pollution, I think it is such a good one as it is not just talking about plastic in ocean. It is also talking about the entire life cycle of plastic from when it is first made from individual resin pellets, all the way down through the pathways until it becomes plastic pollution in the ocean. Along the entire vector from initial manufacturing to end of life in the ocean (if it ends up there) there are myriad ways where those plastic items can be disrupted for us to address this issue. I do think as our times have evolved, plastic pollution is certainly becoming a more common term. But that does not mean we disregard other forms of marine debris which are out there and pose their own respective challenges.
Dr. Bill Francis (Algalita): Well, that’s a complicated issue and there are an awful lot of different stakeholders who need to be involved in addressing the issues. Plastic in itself is not bad, but plastic pollution is bad. There are certain uses of plastic that we should not be doing as human beings. When you consider the marine debris issue, if you focus on that, it is an international issue; no one owns the oceans but everyone has a part in contributing to their health and well being. So it’s a very complicated issue.
Beth Terry (Plastic Free book): When I think of plastic pollution, I think of plastic in the ocean. But I also think of all the different ways that plastic is toxic and pollutes. Starting from its manufacturing, where water and air are polluted from the chemicals in plastics to chemicals that can leach out of plastics that we use. Those are forms of plastic pollution as well. I know a lot of us are focusing on ocean but for me, it’s important to reduce the amount of plastic that we’re using in the first place because of all the different types of plastic pollution and not ocean plastic pollution alone.
Book: Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (buying options)
Websites: Plastic Pollution Coalition;