martes, 17 de julio de 2012

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch And The Beach Cleanup Myth


As a member of the media, I can’t help but be annoyed when we get a story wrong. Particularly when we continue to get it wrong over and over again. To wit: the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is not a patch. It is not an island of plastic, nor is it, as Wired put it yesterday, a “huge mass. It would more accurately be described as plastic soup (there are millions of tiny particles of plastic in all of the world’s oceans), but I suppose Great Pacific Plastic Soup doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Anyway, who cares, right? What possible difference could it make?

It sounds silly, but it does actually matter. The thing is, last year when a researcher at Oregon State University pointed out that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was neither a patch nor really comprised of garbage, people everywhere who would like to see the end of any sort of regulation on packaging seized the opportunity, equating the lack of a “patch” to the lack of a problem when in fact the reality–an ocean of plastic soup–is that the problem is bigger than we thought. If it really were a patch or an island, it could feasibly be cleaned up.

Which brings me to the second mistake the media, and companies, continue to make on the ocean plastic issue: the clean-up myth. Let’s face it: No one likes a trashy beach, and beach clean-ups make everyone feel like they’re doing something good. The same goes for ocean clean-ups, which have been happening regularly since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch first made headlines. This week Method introduced a new soap bottle made out of ocean plastic collected on the beaches of Hawaii. Wired and other media outlets picked the story up, applauding the company for turning “the ocean garbage patch” into packaging. So what, right? What could possibly be wrong with Method turning beach trash into packaging?

Size Distracts From Real Danger Of The 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch 
Photos: In Pictures: Inside The World's Superdumps

Nothing, really. Except that it perpetuates the idea that all we need to do is clean this stuff up and find another use for it and the problem will be solved. Hundreds of thousands of dollars every year are being spent on ocean and beach cleanup efforts, money that is essentially wasted because for every ton cleaned up there are several more right behind it. Were Method to want to make a real impact on ocean garbage, it would be better served investing in research and development of some sort of alternative to plastic packaging.

Plastic is a terrific material–it’s durable, flexible, and has a seemingly endless number of uses. It also lasts forever, which is why it is not the ideal material for temporary uses like packaging, bags, straws and so forth. In an effort to set the record straight around the plastic problem and to take a closer look at the role of business in all of it–both the problem and the solutions–this column will be dedicated this month to a series of posts on the matter. Stay tuned for the next installment tomorrow.

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