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News: There’s plastic in lots of ocean waters…but there’s less of it than expected…and impact on fish and birds is hard to gauge

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NOAA photo of marine debris in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii

This image from NOAA is too often used to mischaracterize what marine debris looks like in the open ocean. Not a shot of the open waters of the Pacific, this is instead a shot of Hanauma Bay, Hawaii, where materials from land have been concentrated by winds and currents to form what is admittedly an awful mess. We need to shape our communications to lead the reader to think “how cen we keep this mess from leaving the land and ending up n the water?” rather that “gee, that’s interesting…I had no idea there was that much junk in the Pacific” if we’re going to tackle the marine debris problem.

Today Associated Press released an article today that begins “Plastic junk is floating widely on the world’s oceans, but there’s less of it than expected, a study says.” But the headline is far less balanced:“Study: Plastic debris widespread on ocean surface”

The fact that plastic materials can be found in lots of places is sadly the emphasis of many of the articles on marine debris, and the stranger and more remote the place, seemingly the better.

An important line indicating what we need to support is buried at the very end of the article:

“The impact on fish and birds is hard to gauge because scientists don’t understand things like how much plastic animals encounter and how they might be harmed if they swallow it”

Research on the impacts of plastic materials, which are varied in size and chemical composition, lags far behind the work on simple detection. We know, and for some time have known, that plastics, large and small, are found in many, many parts of the world’s oceans. What we need to spend time on (and time means money) is the impact of what we’re finding. Without a better understanding of the impacts a maximized plan to attack the most harmful sources first and with greatest effort is more or less guesswork. And so far we’re not doing well focusing on those things that we do know are harming marine life. There’s not a complete absence of research – for example the Italians are doing some interesting work on impacts to whales in the Med from ingested plastic – but this field is research in still in its infancy.

When it’s easier to get funding and political support to go on a cruise to tow a plankton net that to tackle marine debris that we know harms wildlife (derelict nets and certain tire reefs, for example), or to get robust funding for the research to tackle the impacts we poorly understand, there’s a good chance that we’re not tackling this rationally.

Similarly, when the media focus remains on distant blue waters, which make for interesting photos and stories I agree, and less on the less charismatic solid waste disposal problems on land (proper disposal and handling of wastes, stormwater management, etc.) we’re inclined to look for solutions from NOAA, who has little authority or ability to stop the plastic from entering the oceans. We should look to the U.S. EPA which regulates solid waste, or the multitudes of states and localities who set policies and manage local waste disposal, recycling and stormwater which might be able to actually reduce the flows of plastic into rivers, lakes and oceans, rather than looking solely to NOAA which the U.S. Congress has given neither the funding nor the legal tools to tackle the problem in proportion to its scale.

It is time to move on from “hey look, I found plastic in a far off place!” to “why in the world don’t we have robust recycling programs in all populated parts of the U.S.?” and other issues that surround tacking the problem of waste across the board.

The author of this blog is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy, government relations and strategic communications firm in Washington, DC.
A
bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com
You can follow Will Nuckols on Twitter at @enviroxpert and on Pinterest at http://pinterest.com/willnuckols/

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Written by Will Nuckols

June 30, 2014 at 2:42 pm

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