Plastic oceans - can technology help turn the tide?

Alan Ewens, Data Analyst, discusses the scale of the ocean plastics issue and some of the technological advancements that may provide solutions.

Society is beginning to see a shift in consumer attitudes to plastic and plastic waste. Everyone understands that, if not managed correctly, it can have a damaging impact on the environment and many are now working to try to reduce plastic pollution.

Plastic is such a versatile and flexible material and its use has grown in recent years. Finding ways to capture this valuable material for reuse and recycling, as well as finding ways to stop it being lost into our eco system, has become a priority. Many are looking at alternatives and to solve the problems it has caused.

Plastic in the ocean

The BBC series Blue Planet brought to the public’s attention the damage plastic is causing to the ocean’s natural ecosystem. Meanwhile, expeditions have found traces of plastic as far afield as the Arctic icecaps. Whilst pressure on retailers and plastics producers can in time reduce the amount of plastic used, this cannot do anything about the plastic already damaging the natural world.

No human-led, clean-up expedition could remove all plastic currently floating in our oceans and frozen in our ice caps (it is estimated that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains approximately 2 million pieces of plastic, weighing 80,000 tonnes); however, there is hope.

Technological solutions

Technological advancement has contributed to many of the environmental issues we face, but it is becoming clear that this must and will also play a significant role in the resolution of those problems.

Engineers for the Ocean Clean-up Project recently announced that a floating boom, designed to pick up plastic from the ocean in the area of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has been successfully deployed. Its design means that most marine life pass underneath whilst plastic is caught, and its developers hope it can eventually be scaled up so that it can have an ever more significant impact on what is a seemingly intractable problem.

This comes the year after scientists were able to map out an enzyme capable of ‘eating’ plastic bottles made from PET, which was initially discovered by accident. Efforts to synthesise the enzyme in a laboratory are ongoing but, if successful, it is a discovery which may revolutionise the recycling process and turn the tide in the fight against plastic pollution.

Other smaller scale projects also target the clean-up of the oceans. The Sea Bin Project places a bin sized water filter and pump in marinas and harbours around the world. The bin is not only capable of collecting plastic waste down to 2mm in size, but is also specially designed to absorb surface pollutants such as oil.

Looking at plastic alternatives, CuanTec, a Scottish based biotechnology firm has formulated a natural packaging from chitin that has been extracted from the shells of shellfish left over after processing – mainly langoustines caught in Scottish fisheries. This is a company creating a bioplastic from a waste material to make a “circular economy” product, hopefully suitable for the packaging sector to use.

News of the impact of plastic pollution may seem bleak and make it appear like an impossible problem to overcome; however, technological development gives us hope. After all, history has shown that human ingenuity is never greater than when faced with overcoming seemingly insurmountable problems.

What is Valpak doing?

Here at Valpak we are sponsoring and taking part in a number of awareness initiatives to help reduce the impact of plastic litter on the environment. These include Keep Scotland Beautiful’s “Upstream Battle” campaign, which aims to highlight the route that litter takes from land to sea and the Henderson Island beach clean-up expedition.

In addition, as part of our Social Value Programme, Valpak staff take part in litter picks across Stratford-upon-Avon, where our head office is located.

What can you do?

Sometimes simple solutions are in our hands. We can decide what we purchase and when we purchase it. We can also ensure that our plastic waste ends up in the recycling bin and is not lost as litter, which may end up in water courses as plastic pollution. Taking part in litter clean-ups at local parks and beaches is a step in the right direction. Each action helps.