Fed up!
© Getty
September 2019

Fed up!

The massive plastic pollution of the oceans is one of the greatest challenges of our time. However, there are encouraging, ambitious projects and ideas.

Actually, the problem for animals that live in the marine environment such as dolphins, sea turtles and seabirds – and ultimately for us humans – is a much more dangerous one: It’s estimated that about 70 percent of the huge amounts of plastic in the oceans does not even consist of large, floating plastic pieces but of microplastics. Even tiniest particles in the form of additives in cosmetic peels, shower gels, and toothpaste are flushed into the oceans. Others are created by abrasion, UV radiation, and the constant sea current that decomposes and grinds large plastic parts into microplastics. Some of these microparticles drop to the bottom of the deep sea from where in all likelihood it will never be possible to raise them again. Another part is eaten by marine animals and thus will end up in our stomachs at some point in time. Plastic wrap used to be around the fish we consume, today it’s part of our diet whenever we eat fish.

It has been established that currently some 150 million metric tons (165 million short tons) are polluting the oceans, and up to 13 million (14 million) more end up there per year. Plus, 80 percent of the waste gets into the oceans due to being discarded by people living in coastal regions – the countries of South East Asia being one of the main areas. Scientists are working on projects exploring the paths of plastic migration into the oceans, how this can be avoided, and whether the waste can at least be partially eliminated from the oceans again and recycled. In this context, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2017 initiated a research program billed as “Plastics in the Environment – Sources, Sinks, Solutions.” Until 2022 a total of 20 joint projects plus a scientific supporting project will be funded with some 37 million euros. The objective is to explore the extent of the problem in greater detail and to develop solutions to reduce the amount of plastic waste being generated.

Facts and figures
  • 600 years
    is the time it takes for a fishing line to fully dissolve in water, 450 years for a PET bottle, 50 years for a styrofoam cup, and 20 years for a plastic bag.
  • 4.5 times
    as large as Germany is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” northeast of Hawaii: 80,000 metric tons (88,000 short tons) of plastic are concentrated there in an area of 1.6 million km2 (618,000 square miles).
  • 32 %
    of the annual amount of 78 million metric tons (86 million short tons) of plastic packaging used around the world end up in our environment such as our oceans uncontrolled.
  • Some 33 %
    of global waste is produced in highly developed countries although only about 16 % of the world population lives there. (Source: World Bank Report “What a Waste 2.0”)
  • Up to 120 billion dollars
    worth of resources are lost per year because packaging is used only once and then discarded.(Source: Heinrich Böll Foundation)
  • Some 10 % of the plastic waste
    in the oceans emanates from fishing, due to illegal trash disposal on the high seas and lost fishing nets, among other things.
Fed up!© Getty
Avoiding & educating

Every one of us can and should help prevent the generation of even more amounts of plastic waste. The international traveling exhibition “Ocean Plastics Lab” aims to heighten public awareness of the plastic waste issue. Project Coordinator Dr. Julia Schnetzer lists some of the seemingly small, yet efficient behaviors consumers can adopt in order to control and reduce the amount of plastic waste: “First, avoid plastic packaging when shopping and generally consume less. Second, dispose of household garbage in ways that make more effective recycling possible. And third, wear less clothing made of synthetic materials such as fleece because every laundry cycle flushes microfibers into the sewer systems which many wastewater treatment plants are unable to filter out or which end up on farm fields as sludge.”

From an overall perspective, environmental experts expect a change in consumer attitudes and behaviors to have the greatest impact on controlling and reducing the flood of plastics. As well as generally choosing not to buy products packaged and wrapped in plastics, this includes the use of returnable packaging and reusable tableware at events, according to Greenpeace. However, a lot of education and information is necessary to bring about this change in thinking. Especially in countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam or China, from where particularly large amounts of waste get into the oceans, knowledge and the requisite technology are often lacking.

The German marine biologist Dr. Mareike Huhn, for example, has dedicated herself to changing this situation. For five years, she has been personally active in educating the population on the Indonesian Banda Islands about disposing of garbage. With her “Banda Sea” organization she has not only established a type of garbage collection system but also provides environmental education to the local population because the inhabitants of these scenic spice-islands urgently have to change their ways. For centuries, says the German activist, they’ve been used to disposing of their – previously biodegradable garbage – in the ocean. Obviously, such practices are problematic in the age of plastic packaging.

Fed up!© Getty
Cleaning & collecting

To keep plastic waste from suffocating the oceans, smaller and larger initiatives and organizations around the world are providing First Aid. While some of them are looking for ways to skim plastic parts off the ocean surface in large-scale cleanup projects using innovative technology, others are ridding the beaches of discarded plastic bottles and plastic sandals washed ashore by tedious, albeit efficient manual work.

The most commonly known and ambitious ocean cleanup projects include “The Ocean Cleanup” and “Pacific Garbage Screening (PGS).” Initiator of “The Ocean Cleanup” is the 24-year-old Dutchman Boyan Slat, who as early as in his high school days was shocked by the huge amounts of garbage he encountered while snorkeling in coastal waters of Greece. His idea: Garbage floating in the upper five meters (16 feet) of the water surface is to be trapped by means of V-shaped floating “arms,” aspirated by a platform anchored on the bottom of the sea, and subsequently recycled. The maritime garbage collector is intended to use the current of oceanic whirlpools to drive the garbage into the system’s “tentacles.” First field tests in the Pacific last fall were foiled by technical issues. The system is currently being revised.

Still in the development and funding phase is the 400 by 400 meter (1,300 by 1,300 foot) large “Pacific Garbage Screening” project devised by Marcella Hansch, a student from Aachen, Germany. “PGS is designed to be a floating platform directly anchored in the garbage whirlpool. The best part about it: it works without nets and filters, so fish and other marine animals can swim through it without risk,” she says, explaining her idea. The operating principle of PGS: the platform is intended to calm the wild currents within the garbage whirlpool so that the lightweight microparticles can rise to the surface from where they’re skimmed off. She and her team have also thought about future uses of the collected plastic waste. “We don’t want to just incinerate the plastic materials but, for instance, use them as a resource to generate energy and biodegradable plastics,” says Hansch.

By contrast, the “4Ocean” initiative founded by Andrew Cooper and Alex Schulze performs manual work in every respect. Like many others, the two surfers from Florida turned into environmental activists due to personal experiences with garbage floating in the ocean. With their organization that was founded only two years ago they have by now managed to motivate some 150 volunteers around the world to join cleanup crews collecting plastic waste on coasts and beaches by hand. The project is financed by the sale of stylish bracelets produced from recycled plastic waste. So far, more than two million kilos (4,4 million pounds) of plastic waste have been collected, according to the organization.

Arguably the most spectacular trash collection campaign, though, was launched in India in October 2015. It shows what enormous effects the initiative of a single individual can have. Initially acting on his own, Afroz Shah, a young Indian lawyer, began to collect plastic waste that was littering Mumbai’s Versova beach. Subsequently joined by thousands of volunteers, he has completely cleaned up the beach by now. Even the sand that at the beginning of the campaign had been completely covered by mountains of plastic garbage washed ashore is now visible again.

Fed up!© Getty
Recycling & processing

Obviously, not all plastic waste from the ocean can be recycled into stylish bracelets, nor into innovative sneakers, functional shirts or chlorine-resistant swim suits like those produced by German sportswear manufacturer Adidas. However, projects like these do serve to heighten public awareness of the acute threat to the oceans. Plus, per pair of the “green shoe” that uses 85 percent recycled marine waste an average of eleven plastic bottles are recycled, according to Adidas.

So what can be done with the remaining floods of plastic waste? A marketable technology for recycling large quantities of plastics is not available yet, not least because each of the six economically most important polymers is made up of diverse basic components that are not chemically compatible. Consequently, waste collection by material type would be imperative to achieve effective and economically feasible recycling. What’s more, many types of plastics cannot simply be melted down and reused. Due to chemical reactions, some of them become unusable and others react with tiny residual contaminations that are hard to eliminate.

The bacterium that was accidentally discovered on a Japanese sanitary landfill, and investigated and developed further by U.S. scientists is not in large-scale use yet either. The “super enzyme” is said to be able to decompose polyethylene terephthalate – better known as PET – in a fraction of the time it takes a PET bottle to decompose naturally. In an article published by “National Geographic” last year, Professor John McGeehan who leads the research expressed optimism: “It’s well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET and potentially other substrates like PEF, PLA, and PBS, back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled.”

The German company Ecogy plans to transform plastic waste into fuel: 140,000 metric tons (154,000 short tons) of plastic garbage are supposed to turn into 125 million liters (33 million gallons) of fuel. In 2018, Richard W. Roberts and Simon White pioneered the “Ocean Saviour” idea, a vessel that, while autonomously navigating the oceans, collects plastic waste and converts it onboard into the fuel powering the ship. In other parts of the world, for instance in China and India, scientists are working on the conversion of plastic waste into fuel as well. However, the high costs this entails often stifle progress. An even better solution, though, would be to avoid the generation of plastic waste in the first place, and particularly in the form of ocean litter. In closing, here’s a number that should serve as a warning: In 2016, a study commissioned by the World Economic Forum cautioned that by 2050 the amount of plastic in the oceans might exceed the amount of fish in them – a more than alarming prospect.

Sustainability at Schaeffler

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Christel Trimborn
Author Christel Trimborn
Be it fashion, jewelry or ­travel: Freelance journalist Christel Trimborn has been writing about “green” topics focused on sustainability for a long time. Following her shocking research on plastic waste, she’s planning to definitely start taking an even closer look than she used to at what type of packaging will end up in her shopping cart.