As World Cup play continues across Brazil, the country is gearing up to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Among the concerns is that the sailing venue near Rio de Janeiro is too polluted to hold any event, says local biologist Mario Moscatelli.
“The Brazilian authorities seem like they live in a parallel universe in a world of rose-colored glasses that has a different smell, different colors, that doesn’t have the trash we see floating and accumulating in the mangroves along Guanabara,” he says.
The same story is playing out globally. Plastic accounts for $13 billion in damage to marine habitat, according to a United Nations report released at this week's Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.
Plastic that washes from roads into streams and rivers, eventually makes its way to beaches and oceans. Over time, it accumulates in the water column. It never goes away because plastic is synthetic and doesn’t biodegrade, it just simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.
“There are chemicals in plastic that can leach out into oceans, but then there are also a lot of chemicals and pollutants in the oceans," said Nancy Wallace, who heads the Marine Debris Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "So things like DDT that are outlawed now, but their legacy compounds that are still in the ocean, they will go on to the plastics because of the properties and because of that they are on those plastics when the fish are ingesting them.”
That potentially moves dangerous toxins up the food chain and back to human consumers. Humans cause the problem and humans can solve it, Wallace adds.
“By using less single use items, by recycling our items, by disposing of those properly and making sure they’re going where they should be going," she said. "We can really make a huge difference. It’s really about caring about the environment and knowing that we are the ones that impact it.”
Richard Mattison, CEO of Trucost, the company that calculated the $13 billion marine damage figures, points out that the report promotes an alternative: a business model that opens new markets for sustainable plastic products.
“You could replace the use of virgin raw materials for plastic, which is oil, with bio-based products," he said. "You could reduce the energy intensity of plastics production by using renewable energy resources. You could reuse bottles in your households many times if you wish to, rather than ending it off after the first use. We could when we get rid of that plastics, recycle it and reuse it, which replaces the need for virgin raw materials.”
The report calls for companies to better measure, manage and disclose information about the use and disposal of plastics, says Andrew Russell, Director of the Plastic Disclosure Project, which released the report at the Nairobi meeting.
“We see the opportunities for them to save money, quite frankly," Russell said. "We also see them to be much more aware, much more cognizant of risks they face in the environment from a reputation perspective, or from a regulatory perspective. If they think about plastic the way they do other things, then I think these opportunities will present themselves.”
Russell says that by putting a new value on plastic, industry has an incentive to clean up the environment, but adds that all sectors of society must join to address the problem.