“The Smog of the Ocean” — UPSTREAM Battles Plastic Pollution at the Source

Written by on September 4, 2017 in Marine Life, Policy & Ocean Law

While many people have heard about the giant “floating plastic garbage patches” in the oceans, the truth is that the issue is neither that simple to describe nor simple to solve. One organization, UPSTREAM, decided that really fixing the problem of plastic polluting our oceans requires re-thinking the very basic ways in which we use plastic in our modern society. The leading quote from their webpage sums it nicely — “Today we use plastic — a material designed to last forever — for products designed to last minutes.”

UPSTREAM Description of the Fundamental Cause of Plastic Pollution. Image Courtesy of UPSTREAM.

UPSTREAM Description of the Fundamental Cause of Plastic Pollution. Image Courtesy of UPSTREAM.

UPSTREAM was founded in 2003 by Dr. Bill Sheehan and Helen Spiegelman, who were pioneers of the Zero Waste movement in the United States and Canada. Through their work together in the 1990s on expanding recycling and composting, they soon realized that while recycling is important, we cannot recycle our way to a sustainable future. They realized the solution was to work farther “upstream.” In their words, “We have to build a circular economy where products are designed with safe, sustainable materials and produced with renewable energy. We have to ensure that consumer products and packaging are redesigned to either safely biodegrade or become manufacturing inputs for the next generation of products. And we have to build and sustain the infrastructure to make it possible.”

UPSTREAM has a list of facts about plastic pollution that illustrate the scope and urgency of the problem:

PLASTIC IS CHOKING OUR PLANET: Each year, 32 million tons of plastic (including ⅓ of all plastic packaging produced) enter the environment with 8 million tons escaping into the world’s oceans. That is equivalent to five shopping bags filled with plastic garbage for every foot of coastline in the world. Sunlight and water currents shred the plastic into smaller particles called microplastics, which attract and concentrate toxic chemicals up the food chain and into our bodies.

PLASTIC POISONS THE FOOD CHAIN: With plastic acting as a toxic-conveyor-belt, sponging pollutants from surrounding waters into the tissues of everything that eats it – from plankton, to fish, to whales, to humans that eat seafood – plastic pollution is changing the very chemistry of life. Furthermore, the evidence continues to increase that plastic food packaging leaches toxic chemicals into the food and beverages we consume. Low-income families are more highly exposed as research shows they eat more packaged and fast food.

PLASTIC POLLUTION IS PRIMARILY FROM SINGLE-USE DISPOSABLE PLASTICS: The vast majority of plastic in the environment is from single-use disposable plastic products, mostly to-go food and beverage packaging.

MORE RECYCLING WILL NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM: While some have focused on improved waste management or more recycling for plastics as the primary solutions, most of the plastic we find in the environment has no value in today’s recycling systems. It costs more to collect and process the material than you get from selling it.

PLASTIC USE IS EXPLODING: The plastic industry is projecting a 400% increase in plastic production over the next 30 years, growing to an estimated 20% of all fossil fuel use. Much of the growth is projected by expanding single-use-disposable applications for plastic – like plastic bags, coffee cups, to-go containers, food wrappers and straws – around the world. Today, approximately 25% to 40% of all plastic production goes to make packaging, with half of all plastic packaging used for single-use disposable applications. 1/3 of all plastic packaging ends up in the environment.

Today, UPSTREAM works to advance state and local policy and corporate responsibility, and to drastically reduce the amount of disposable plastic polluting our planet and impacting our health. UPSTREAM acts as conveners and provides strategic leadership to develop and implement collaborative campaigns and projects across sectors and organizations. 

See "A Plastic Ocean" at the Portland (ME) Museum of Art, September 14 at 6 p.m. Sponsored by UPSTREAM.

See “A Plastic Ocean” at the Portland (ME) Museum of Art, September 14 at 6 p.m. Sponsored by UPSTREAM.

MST readers in midcoast and southern Maine can meet some of the UPSTREAM team at a special showing of A Plastic Ocean, a feature-length documentary which captured never-before-seen images of marine life, plastic pollution, and its ultimate consequences for human health. You can see it at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art on September 14, 2017, at 6 p.m. Admission is free but there is a suggested donation of $10. If you can spare the money, this is definitely a worthy cause and if you can’t, see the movie anyway and get involved. 

Copyright © 2017 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Tom Tripp is the owner of OceanLines Ltd., the publisher of OceanLines and founder and Editor Emeritus of Marine Science Today. He is an award-winning marine journalist, science and aviation writer and long-time public communications specialist. His PR career and much of his writing stems from the fact that he loves to explain stuff. It all began when he and his brother Mark threw all of Mom's tomatoes at the back wall of the house. . . .

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