From the depths of the Mariana Trench to the salt on our tables, plastic pollution has infiltrated our planet. Plastic is a material designed to be “thrown away” without considering the fact that “away” does not exist. Due to this fundamental design flaw, over 270 species of mammals, reptiles and fish, many of which are rare and endangered, have been harmed by plastic in some way. Wildlife become entangled in large plastic debris, potentially leading to suffocation, drowning and eventual death from hunger. The ingestion of plastics results in internal abrasions and blockages that impair sexual activity and immune systems in wildlife and may lead to death. As a further complication, microplastics (plastics broken down into small pieces) are passed up the food web, affecting all levels of an ecosystem and even finding their way onto our dinner tables.
In Hawai‘i, plastic pollution inundates our beaches and harms not only their inherent beauty but also the animals that call these places home. Unfortunately, most of the debris found on the picturesque shores of Hawai‘i is not the result of consumption within the state. The Hawaiian Islands are situated just southwest of the eastern portion of the North Pacific Garbage Patch. As a gyre, the garbage patch is a result of atmospheric and oceanic pressures pushing free floating debris into one area. This patch, which covers 1.6 million square kilometers (twice the size of Texas), is a dense cloud of floating and submerged plastics and other debris. As the gyre spins in a clockwise motion, plastics are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces through weathering until they drift away from the patch and eventually hit remote islands in the Pacific Ocean and the west coast of the U.S. This is why the portions of the Hawaiian Islands that face the northeast are the regions with the highest concentrations of plastic pollution.
Though most of the plastic pollution that litters our shores is not the result of consumption on our land, we must think globally and act locally to see progress in our state. The global plastic issue is being tackled locally in Hawai‘i on multiple fronts, like legislation banning the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam. Many people have made personal efforts to replace single-use plastic bags and water bottles with reusable ones and carry cutlery and containers from home.
This green wave has created a new market opportunity and businesses want in. To tackle this green market, many businesses have ditched plastic entirely and looked towards more sustainable materials, such as bamboo and paper. Others have begun exploring a different kind of plastic material: bioplastic. Bioplastic producers claim their products to be “eco-friendly” and label them as “biodegradable” or “compostable” since they are made by extracting the polymer directly from plant biomass, not petroleum.
Eco-friendly and compostable? Sounds great! But is it?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers “green guides” to give producers guidance in labelling. Companies can use these terms so long as they conform to certain industry standards, much like “organic” and “all-natural” labels on food products. According to the FTC, a product is “biodegradable” only if it returns to nature in a reasonable time frame without the help of commercial facilities and “compostable” if there is reliable evidence that all materials of the product will break down in a safe and timely manner when placed in the appropriate composting facility. If a product or material claims to abide by industrial standard “ASTM6400”, it fits our aforementioned definition of “compostable” and can only decompose in an environment of at least 50° C. These temperatures can only be achieved in commercial composting facilities, not backyard compost bins. Unfortunately, there are no composting facilities in the state of Hawai‘i that can properly break down these materials.
But okay, petroleum-based products are still worse than “compostable” plant biomass-based ones, right? Don’t they degrade faster than traditional plastics? Well, a study performed by 5 Gyres for Better Alternatives Now or “B.A.N. List 2.0” found that the answer is… no. To determine how bioplastic products perform when subjected to the ocean or environment, products from several companies were left in ocean and land environments for extended periods of time. Over the time span of two years, the bioplastic products remained totally intact or broke up into “micro-bioplastics” but did not decompose or biodegrade at all. Meaning that our wildlife entanglement and ingestion issue is not solved.
So, are bioplastics the answer?
Bioplastics are a move away from the use of petroleum-based products which extract non-renewable resources from the earth and are often mixed with toxic additives that end up seeping into our oceans and environment, but they are not a real solution as they only provide a new “less-bad” problem. Without proper composting infrastructure, wildlife will ingest and become entangled in bioplastics the same way they do with traditional plastics.
As industry is driven by profit, there are potential gains and unexplored market opportunities in more sustainable packaging that will reduce stress on wildlife, and inevitably ourselves. As we sit in anticipation or pioneer the exploration into these uncharted, plastic-filled waters, we must take individual responsibility and change our consumptive habits, for the sake of conserving biodiversity and our own well-being. Though we’ve been imprinted with “reduce, reuse, recycle”, challenge yourself to go no further than “reduce”. Replace any plastic products with reusable or refillable products that provide the same service without using any disposable materials at all. Even small reductions like these will lessen the impact of plastic pollution on our ecosystems and wildlife.
Conservation Conversation is contributed by the Society for Conservation Biology Hawai´i Chapter. To join the chapter and see more opportunities to get involved in conservation efforts in Hawai´i visit www.HISCB.org.