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Paper or plastic? Policies inspired by research to find a solution to plastic pollution

Plastic. At the mall it means credit card, in Mean Girls it’s the popular clique, in the oceans it’s pollution.

At Oceanbites, we’ve talked about plastic pollution a lot. I mean A L O T. That’s because it’s notoriously B I G problem. Fish eat plastic. Plankton eat plastic. Even sea turtles are doing it now!

Figure 1. Plastic garbage patch from NOAA.org Centimeter ruler for scale.

Science is really great at identifying problems. For example, scientists were at the forefront of figuring out just how big a problem plastic pollution is. In 1988, scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified plastics floating in the ocean, and predicted this parts of the Pacific Ocean would have large amounts of plastic. Around ten years later, a sailor discovered the patch where they said it would be, and named it the Eastern Garbage Patch. Since this discovery, garbage patches have been found in every ocean in the world.

Figure 2. Map of the Pacific Ocean garbage patches from NOAA.org

This week though, we are trying to focus on the sunny side of science that is often overlooked. We are doing this because science doesn’t just identify problems. Science can also be used to solve problems.

In this article, we are going to focus on what happens after science identifies problems. Specifically, now that we know that plastics – big and small and even micro – hurt the environment, what are some of the things we did to fix it?

Plastic Policy-palooza!

One way to enact positive change is through making laws. This can happen at many levels – international, national, even local. Science studying the impact of plastic pollution let caring citizens want to do something to help our oceans, and their politicians listened.

Figure 3. The relationship between policy and scientific inquiry, adapted from Rochman et al., 2016.

The International Maritime Organization implements the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as modified by the Protocol of 1978. Long name. It goes by “MARPOL”, which is short for Marine Pollution. MARPOL is sort of like the Paris Accord that has recently been in the news – it is not something that countries must abide by. Instead, countries who care about ocean health will agree to uphold it, and then they will make laws for their own country to enforce it. In America, we enforce it through the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships. Originally, MARPOL was mostly about preventing oil from getting into water. Since then, MARPOL has been updated. In 1988, dumping of ANY plastic into the ocean was banned. Finally, scientists got to see their work about plastic pollution lead to positive environmental changes.

MARPOL is a huge effort though, with 154 countries agreeing to uphold its efforts to keep our oceans clean. Let’s look at some legislation closer to home.

Figure 4. Map of all MARPOL signing nations.

The United States’ Clean Ocean Act of 1972 does a lot to prevent ocean pollution by outlawing the dumping of toxic waste, radioactive materials, and biological agents into the ocean. It also prevents the dumping of plastics and other garbage into the ocean. This law was a fantastic step, since oceans have been used as an easy garbage disposal site throughout human history. However, while the Clean Ocean Act banned most direct dumping into the ocean, we know that pollution gets into the ocean from many more sources than addressed in this act. More laws were needed at the national and state levels to go further in keeping our oceans healthy.

California has a vested interest in the oceans – it has 840 miles of coastline. This is part of why in 2008, state legislature there enacted the Preproduction Plastic Debris plan. This plan stated that California would have zero-tolerance for companies found releasing raw plastic products into the environment. Many storm drains in California have devices that capture trash to prevent it from washing into sewers, and eventually into the ocean.

Figure 5. Nurdles, also known as mermaid tears, are small plastic pellets found in the ocean which can be eaten by marine wildlife.

It’s not just California, though. Lots of cities and states have taken notice of scientific research showing plastic pollution was a problem. All over the US, trash capture devices are now being used to prevent plastics from entering waterways and eventually the ocean. One of the biggest sources of pollution was from plastic bags, like the kind you get in the grocery store. So cities from states ranging from Hawaii to Maine, Alaska to Texas began to ban single use plastic bags. Though there has been significant resistance in some places, some evidence of positive impacts from these bans is emerging. San Francisco was one of the first places to ban bags, and found that about 60 million fewer plastic bags were used per year!Source

As more researchers found that microplastic beads, like the kind you used to find in toothpaste and facewash, are actually really bad for the environment. Animals will eat them, and then not digest them. It’s almost like swallowing every piece of gum you chew! So the United States government enacted the “Microbeads-Free Water Act of 2015.” This simply-named law banned manufacturing and eventually selling things with microbeads in them.


Not all efforts to help prevent more plastic pollution are through legislation; some of it is from the plastics industry itself (with some notable exceptions). The American Chemical Council’s Operation Clean Sweep helps plastic manufacturing/using businesses with the stated goal to ‘Prevent [Plastic] Resin Pellet, Flake and Powder Loss’ into the environment. Countries and businesses all over the world signed “The Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter” to help raise awareness about plastic pollution and help industries reuse, recycle, and conduct business in environmentally-friendly ways.

Figure 6. The top ten plastic trash items found in the oceans.


Non-profit organizations

Non-profit organizations have been essential in promoting awareness about plastic pollution and organizing clean up efforts, large and small. For example, the 5 Gyres Institute produces not only scientific studies on plastic patches in the ocean, but made a documentary called ‘Smog of the Sea’ about the problem. You’ve likely heard of local clean up events, often of rivers, parks, roadways, and beaches. These are great efforts to help prevent debris from getting into the ocean by removing it from the environment before it starts to breakdown into tiny, hard to catch pieces!

Other really interesting approaches to help clean up plastic come from non-profit collaborations with universities, like Clean Oceans International and the University of California at Santa Cruz, who are working towards making profitable fuel from plastics. There’s even a TEDx talk about it here.

Very excitingly, a very young (22 years old) environmentalist and his foundation, The Ocean Cleanup, devised a way to use the ocean’s currents to clean up these tiny plastic particles that clog up the middle of the ocean. Essentially, a long floating system will filter plastics from the ocean water and cache them for us to recycle later. This is set to start in the Pacific in 2018. And yup, there’s TEDx for that too.

Figure 7. Initial tests of plastic collecting devices designed by The Ocean Cleanup, from theoceancleanup.org. The organization has proposed floating these filters throughout the world’s oceans to collect plastics and store them for recycling.

Fantastic Plastic Policy, where do we stand?

We’ve gone through plastic pollution problems and policies here, from worldwide legislation to local efforts. What are some things you can do though? Our next Oceanbites post by Katherine Bailey will tell you more about things people are doing personally and through volunteering to clean up beaches and oceans. Check the July 20, 2017 post to learn stories from the ‘front lines’ of plastic cleanup, and how you can help!


Inspired by Rochman, Cook, and Koelmans, 2016. Plastic Debris and Policy: Using Current Scientific Understanding to Invoke Positive Change. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Vol. 35, No. 7. With significant googling by Laura Zinke, information from government websites and the public domain, and news reports.


Interested in plastic pollution research? Read some of Oceanbites coverage!

Deep sea as a major sink of microplastics: https://oceanbites.org/microplastics-rolling-in-the-deep/

How microplastics transfer pollutants: https://oceanbites.org/microplastics-demystified-a-review-examining-how-these-tiny-plastics-act-in-pollutant-transfer/

Corals eat microplastics: https://oceanbites.org/corals-consume-microplastics-talk-about-an-unhealthy-diet/

Microplastics released from Arctic Ice: https://oceanbites.org/an-accidental-find-large-quantities-of-microplastics-are-in-arctic-sea-ice/

Intertidal microplastic fibers: https://oceanbites.org/increasing-fiber-in-your-diet-microplastic-fibers-that-is/

Deep-sea animals eat plastic microfibers: https://oceanbites.org/first-evidence-of-microfibre-consumption-by-deep-sea-animals/

Plastics in the ocean: https://oceanbites.org/the-end-of-the-line-for-ocean-plastics/

Little fish eat microplastics: https://oceanbites.org/small-fish-dine-on-small-plastics-and-thats-a-big-problem/

Plankton eat microplastics, too! : https://oceanbites.org/plankton-are-eating-plastic/

So do sea turtles!: https://oceanbites.org/the-new-fad-diet-for-sea-turtles-plastics/

For our other pollution coverage, check out this link: https://oceanbites.org/category/pollution-2/

Interested in marine legislation? We are, too!

More on MARPOL: https://oceanbites.org/marpol-ling-in-the-right-direction/

For all of our policy coverage, go here: https://oceanbites.org/category/policy/

Laura Zinke

I am a PhD student studying sediment geomicrobiology at the University of Southern California. My primary research interests lie deep under the sea studying how microorganisms survive in dark environments and how they interact with chemical cycles in sediment and on earth. When I surface from my studies, I enjoy backpacking, trying to mimic my ridiculous dog, and applying my laboratory techniques in the kitchen.


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