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Businesses, NGOs Partner to Create New Supply Chains for Ocean Plastic

By Jan Lee

Ocean garbage is gaining global attention these days as businesses, researchers, filmmakers and sustainability experts marshal efforts to address the ocean’s biggest environmental threat.

Spanning some 600,000 square miles, the Great Garbage Patch, a collection of plastic and debris floating between California and Hawaii, is still growing. A recent study headed by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation reported that the island of fishing nets, plastic bottles, bags and other debris is now estimated to be twice the size of Texas, “four to sixteen times [the amount] previously reported” in earlier studies.

The news is inspiring action from an eclectic group of activists from around the world – including one all-female research team well known for its effort to highlight women’s professional contributions to marine science as well as their inspired if not gutsy explorations.

Led by British skipper Emily Penn, EXXpedition will journey through the world’s largest of four patches of ocean garbage, starting in Hawaii, and ending in Seattle. The 3,000 nautical mile journey, which will be accompanied by sustainability experts, scientists, business people and filmmakers is due to take them through some of the densest sections of the Pacific patch, with the aim of sampling some of the findings along the way.

Marine researcher Emily Duncan, from the University of Exeter in the U.K. will head up the scientific research. Her team will be looking at the impact of microplastics on marine fauna, including the sea turtle, whose numbers have been declining due to habitat destruction and pollution.

They are also aiming to highlight the need for increasing acceptance of women in the science, technology, engineering and math fields – and what they see as an “imbalance in research funding directed towards gender specific diseases” like breast cancer. This year's expedition also explores the impact that the ocean pollution has on human health.

While EXXpedition is the first female team to focus its trip and research on drawing attention to the Pacific gyre, it isn't the only organization these days trying to draw attention to the destructive impact of ocean pollution.

11th Hour Racing, a Newport, RI organization is well known for its strategic partnerships within the sailing and maritime communities. Emily Penn's EXXpedition, a grantee of 11th Hour Racing, is a benefactor of 11th Hour Racing's collaborative approach in promoting environmental sustainability.

Through a three-pillar system of engagement with partners, grantees and ambassadorships, 11th Hour Racing works to promote collaborative, systemic change that among other things, helps to curb ocean pollution.

One such partnership is with Vestas 11th Hour Racing, a team currently competing in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race (due to finish at The Hague, Netherlands July 1), a nautical race known for its support of environmental sustainability.

11th Hour Racing also supports other environmental projects, such as recovering abandoned fishing nets and gear that can then be molded into eyewear by sunglass manufacturers like Karun. Nearly half of all of the ocean pollution is estimated to be due to discarded fishing gear.

With its current sponsors, Vestas and 11th Hour Racing, the racing team has also been active in educating small communities about the need to curb discarded plastic. The team has established the Vestas 11th Hour Racing Exploration Zone, a series of interactive displays that can be transported from village to village along the route of the Volvo Ocean Race to educate people about how they can help protect the ocean’s vitality.

Depending upon where you are this summer, it looks to be a good time to advocate ecological issues from a seat of your vessel. One Australian team of kayakers has turned a paddling trip from Alaska to Vancouver Island into a research trip that can ultimately help nonprofits clean up beaches. Mathilde Gordon’s and Lucy Graham’s paddling trip will help raise funds for organizations that do research on ocean plastic and pay for expensive fly-ins to areas where marine are being threatened by pollution. Projects have a local and global impact: They raise awareness and efforts at the local town level near the site, while increasing awareness in other parts of the world where the research is tabulated, analyzed and published.

Businesses are also stepping up to advocate for change, from clothing manufacturers to computer and credit card companies.

  • Musto, a U.K. clothing company that makes gear for Vestas 11th Hour Racing, is working to reduce the virgin sources of plastic in packaging. The manufacturer is one of a growing list of companies that’s supporting Volvo Ocean Race's Clean Seas Campaign to reduce and reuse plastic in supply chains and in the environment.

  • Dell, which last year developed a way to repurpose ocean plastic as packaging materials, is now planning to eliminate the use of plastic straws in its facilities. It timed the announcement to coincide with World Ocean Day this year (June 8). Although straws are made from type 5 plastic, many recycling systems aren’t equipped to process them, so they end up either in landfills or in the ocean.

  • And just to prove that there are many, many ways to reuse that floating bottle or sunken net, American Express has partnered with Parley to come up with its own innovative fix: Yes, a credit card made from ocean plastic. The card is currently in prototype and is expected to be released in the coming year. The company says it's also phasing out the use of plastic straws in its facilities as well as moving toward powering its data centers with green power.

The efforts to reduce and reuse come at a good time politically as well: With the news that debris in the Pacific ocean gyre is increasing, not disappearing, several communities are considering laws to ban straws and other types of plastic. Seattle, Maui, New York and Victoria BC Canada already have plastic straws on their elimination lists as communities look for new ways to stop the ocean’s growing supply chain of plastic.


Flickr image: NOAA Office of Response and Restoration

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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