Turning Off the Tap

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Turning Off the Tap
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Photo:  An artist’s illustration shows three examples of systems that can capture plastic waste from rivers (Nicolle Fuller, SAYO-ART)

By Shelly Leachman, UC Santa Barbara

It has been estimated that 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year, with that number growing annually. Where is it all coming from?

Among other places, rivers. In fact, research suggests that a small number of rivers contribute a disproportionately large amount of plastic waste that flows into the ocean — and do so at a collective rate of as much as 275 tons every hour.

Photo: Plastic waste accumulated in the Mekong River in Southeast Asia (Shutterstock)

It’s adding up. And it’s creating major challenges for fish that are important sources of seafood and for other forms of ocean life, including sea turtles, sea birds and whales.

Now, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, a center for applied ocean research based at UC Santa Barbara, is partnering with The Coca-Cola Foundation to fund a plastic waste capture system in a major polluting river. Each partner will contribute $1.5 million to form a $3 million fund for an interdisciplinary team to launch a system that will curb the flow of plastics from river to ocean. Captured plastic waste will be recycled, re-used or disposed of responsibly.

“I’m really excited about this partnership,” said Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and an associate professor of marine science. “UC Santa Barbara has been a leader in research efforts to understand the scope of the problem of plastic waste in the ocean and we are thrilled now to take a lead role in doing something about this important issue.”

The significant amount of plastic waste that flows into the ocean through a small number of rivers provides an opportunity to turn a problem into a strategic solution, the partners in the new endeavor agreed.

“The Coca-Cola Foundation’s support for the University of California Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative will not only enable the development of innovative applications to clean up river plastic, but also the recycling of the materials collected through the pilot project,” said Helen Smith Price, vice president of global community affairs and president of the Coca-Cola Foundation.

To launch the effort, the Benioff Ocean Initiative released a Request for Proposals that invites teams to submit ideas for a pilot river plastics capture project. Applicants are required to describe how the data collected by their river plastic waste capture system could be used to inspire change in plastic waste production and waste management system improvements.

“Not only do we want to build something that will immediately pull more plastic waste out of our rivers and our oceans,” said McCauley, “but we want to use the data and the story surrounding this captured plastic waste to help create the change we need to turn off the tap of plastic getting into our rivers.”

Conversations about initiating a river plastics interception project began with a research symposium held at UC Santa Barbara in 2018. The event brought together world experts in hydrology, industrial ecology, watershed governance and riverine engineering, as well as thought leaders from non-governmental organizations and the private industry. Similar coalitions of researchers, engineers and environmental leaders are expected to apply for the Request for Proposals.

The Benioff Ocean Initiative was founded in 2016 with an initial gift of $10 million from Lynne and Marc Benioff, chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce. The experimental enterprise aims to combine university researchers, students and global ocean communities to identify problems and solve them with emerging technologies.


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a-1593887904 May 22, 2019 08:47 AM
Turning Off the Tap

News flash folks; Everything under the Sun gets discarded into the planets oceans. I have seen with my own eyes; Thousands upon thousands of barrels of toxins, bodies, missiles, pharms, diseases, every floating thing dumps it's toilet into the sea, plastics & all other trash is routinely dumped into the sea, (& lakes, streams, rivers, creeks)

missausten May 21, 2019 03:28 PM
Turning Off the Tap

For a very informative graph showing the comparative amounts of ten rivers that are carrying the most plastic into the oceans - google: Scientific American Stemming the Plastic Tide: Ten Rivers Contribute Most of the Plastic in the Oceans. Scroll down for graph. Each of the ten rivers are in China, India, and Africa. The Yangtze River dwarfs the other nine. And ALL of the rest of the world's rivers combined, do not come close to the Yangtze. Don't boycott these countries. BugGirl and others here are correct about biodegradable plastic and that third world countries don't yet have the needed infrastructure. Our UCSB scientists have partnered with Coca-Cola (they make perhaps the majority of plastic bottles in the third world), seeking proposals to not only capture the waste, but recycle it as well. https://boi.ucsb.edu/active_projects/river-plastics-pollution

PitMix May 22, 2019 08:55 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Two of the three countries/continents you mention have the 2 largest populations on the planet and are relatively poor. So of course they generate the most waste and have the biggest environmental impacts relative to other countries. I wonder how this experiment of burning fossil fuels and dumping plastics and pesticides into our environment is going to end up?

a-1593887904 May 21, 2019 01:05 PM
Turning Off the Tap

If everyone would stoop to pick up even a slight few pieces of plastic trash/litter each time they spied it, it would help. Yesterday, on the beach, I found one red plastic straw, two tennis balls (yes, they're litter, too), the plastic end of a cigarillo-type cigar and a small plastic bottle cap. I also picked up one "set aside" bag of dog poop. All this litter went into the trash bin as soon as I got to the parking lot.----------The beach at low tide and for miles, was 99% clean of trash, I am happy to report. I seem to be finding less and less litter on my beach walks. But I pick up junk in parking lots and even near trash cans, too. I'm not a "goody-two shoes" or hoping for applause, I just think, each time I pick up a plastic bag or another piece of plastic, I am helping to keep one more piece of junk away from birds and other marine life. I urge others to show care as well and pick up the plastic or spray paint cans or tennis balls or other junk when you see it.

Bug Girl May 21, 2019 12:03 PM
Turning Off the Tap

There ARE ways to make biodegradable plastics from plant derived sources. We HAVE the technology. We just choose not to implement them on a larger scale, because the systems in place don't want to change a thing because it will undercut their bottom line. We keep operating as if the world isn't a finite resource. Its simple logic: an economic system based on the assumption of infinite growth on a finite resource is not sustainable. But the people benefiting from this the most are only selfishly looking at their own profits in their own lifetimes, and don't give two s(*ts about the future generations.

PitMix May 21, 2019 01:24 PM
Turning Off the Tap

Green and orange, I just figured you were honoring your Irish heritage! I don't find it hard to read.

Bug Girl May 21, 2019 01:13 PM
Turning Off the Tap

12:49 I would happily change the color of my text if I could figure out how to do so. I've looked under my account but I haven't been able to find any means of changing it. I think those options are only available when you sign up for your account. I was trying to have my name appear as orange, not all my text. Ah well. Sorry for the difficulty in reading my comments.

a-1593887904 May 21, 2019 12:49 PM
Turning Off the Tap

BUG GIRL. You have a good grasp on things and set out your argument well. I agree with you 100%. I also wish, as another Edhat reader requested from you on a different thread, that you would use a colored font which is easier to read. Please? Thank you.

Lucky 777 May 21, 2019 10:49 AM
Turning Off the Tap

The recent Marborg PR statement about recycling said any plastic that has ever held food is NOT recyclable. I was greatly dismayed. It seems all these years of carefully sorting my trash has been an exercise in aspirational futility, it is just getting trashed anyway.

a-1593887904 May 21, 2019 01:12 PM
Turning Off the Tap

LUCKY 777. We always wash out our plastic food trays (TV dinner type ones) and recycle those. I think the "no food" plastic means potato chip bags and other soft, pliable plastic bags. Bags for nuts, candies, frozen foods, etc. If you have a compost, you can cut up the plastic-lined paper TV dinner food trays and recycle those into your soil. You may get bits of super-thin plastic coming up in your garden later, but those can be easily picked up and put into your trash bin.

a-1593887904 May 21, 2019 08:39 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Go to the recycle center and watch how our "blue can trash" is sorted. See that the majority just goes to the dump. See that the remainder is sent to Asia. On ships. Ships that are known to dump trash overboard on the voyage. Your trash. The rest piled on a coastline somewhere as desperate humans living in poverty sort through it. The rest? Pushed into the sea. The trash in the ocean is your trash.

a-1593887904 May 22, 2019 07:29 AM
Turning Off the Tap

You realize you contradict yourself in your own comment? Paper and metal are recyclable thus even you say it's legal to toss in the sea. Most plastics are not and oil certainly isn't so what's your point? Stay focused on plastics? You realize the ocean is vast, correct? There is zero doubt large container ships are dumping metal and paper and whatever other contents from those containers. You honestly think unscrupulous shippers alone in the sea on a big ship on the other side of Guam are worried about an imaginary law about plastics? The reason plastic is everywhere anyway is because Humanity Does Not Care. Your Trash.

kohn1 May 22, 2019 07:16 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Regarding the sorting of the blue bin. Where I live they dump the blue and brown bin into the same load on the truck. I wondered about that so I called Marborg. The gal told me that they hand sorted the load when it got there. I asked her why sort it in the first place but got some blah, blah, blah response. It looks like somebody's pulling the wool over someone's eyes.

a-1593887904 May 21, 2019 12:53 PM
Turning Off the Tap

You have the wrong end of the stick, my friend. There is no sorting of our blue bins (home recycling) done locally.

oceandrew May 21, 2019 11:12 AM
Turning Off the Tap

It is perfectly legal, by international standards even, for vessels 12 miles offshore or more to empty their black water holding tanks and throw food scraps, paper, metal and glass waste overboard. What is illegal is the dumping of oil and plastic. But the notion that ships are tossing cargo containers (recyclables) over the side is idiotically ludicrous... fake news at its slimiest.

PitMix May 21, 2019 08:49 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Don't forget the quantities that are incinerated illegally in the 3rd world destinations, releasing all sorts of toxins into the air and affecting the health of the people living in the nearby slums.

Rinconer May 21, 2019 08:33 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Where is it coming from? The oil based factories.

Luvaduck May 21, 2019 08:09 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Where can I find the list of the river names and locations of those? Are they in places that have no trash collection? If it's "Third World" country residents becoming more prosperous and buying more that this has become a bigger problem, the solution is straight-forward: education and disposal sites.

freshpavement1 May 21, 2019 08:09 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Countries with well developed solid waste systems generally collect and manage used plastics in a way that minimizes the amount of material reaching the oceans. These systems are not perfect, people still litter and dump illegally and so plastics (and other, more toxic pollutants) still find their way into our environment. Such solid waste management systems are expensive to plan for and implement and require major long-term investment in equipment, infrastructure, and maintenance. As a consequence, they are rarely found in less affluent countries. This is a huge problem and it's great to see a program attempting to help address it at UCSB. Extensive research has been conducted on this issue by SWANA (Solid Waste Association of North America) and ISWA (International Solid Waste Association) and it has been clearly and objectively documented that the majority of plastics in the oceans are coming from a relatively few and clearly identified countries that use their waterways as waste disposal systems.

PitMix May 21, 2019 08:54 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Do you really believe the solid waste industry groups that you reference are unbiased observers of the impacts of their waste on the environment? This seems to me the same as the cigarette companies denying their products caused cancer and the oil companies denying climate change even though their records indicate they knew better. Instead of trying to delay the inevitable, why don't the industry groups you support come up with a plastic formulation that is easy to recycle into the same quality of product and not so toxic to the environment? I'm sure it is possible.

freshpavement1 May 21, 2019 08:26 AM
Turning Off the Tap

More on this can be found at https://www.iswa.org/home/news/news-detail/article/facts-and-myths-on-the-origins-of-plastics-entering-the-oceans-dyspersing-the-10-rivers-myth/109/

sea dog May 21, 2019 07:10 AM
Turning Off the Tap

Rivers can contribute to trash in the ocean, esp. after big rains but there are countries that dump all their trash in the ocean. I dove the entire coast from Rincon to pt. Conception as a sea urchin diver and I did not see much trash. I dove everywhere on the channel islands too and saw even less trash. The big garbage patch in the middle of the ocean is created by dumping in the ocean, not littering on the land.

a-1593887904 May 21, 2019 01:19 PM
Turning Off the Tap

SEA DOG. It is both: dumping and littering. There are people who still think it's okay to loose rafts of helium-filled balloons by way of celebration. There are homeless encampments where all of the trash goes from the creek to the ocean. Don't think for one minute that we on land and here in our country are not responsible, in part, for adding to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch------via land litter.

PitMix May 20, 2019 04:05 PM
Turning Off the Tap

Couldn't disagree more. I see a lot of plastic trash in my neighborhood, and I don't see any reason why a bunch of it doesn't end up in the ocean. Unless the leprechauns come out at night and pick it up? Blaming the 3rd world countries for a problem created by the 1st world isn't going to fix anything. Stories in the news right now include illegal shipments of our 1st world plastic to the Phillipines and Malaysia, where it has a huge negative impact on the environment.

a-1593887904 May 21, 2019 11:01 AM
Turning Off the Tap

PIT... you're confusing causation with correlation. Let me explain. If a robbery takes place in daytime you can't blame the sun for the robbery which is what you're doing in your reasoning that if trash is seen in your neighbourhood and trash gets dumped in the ocean then the trash in your 'hood is going to end up in the ocean. Sadly it is 3rd world countries that dump their rubbish into the rivers for disposal as they can't afford more labour intensive collection and disposal (burning or burying) programs (see Haiti, Bangladesh). As for 1st world countries dumping their garbage on 3rd world country ports - total BS. Innovative 1st world countries (not the US) are taking in garbage from their neighbours to generate power from the clean incineration of said garbage. Yeah, I know, sounds like the "clean coal" scam the reality tv prez was pushing not long ago. Sweden has been doing it for years.

AdamVant May 20, 2019 03:59 PM
Turning Off the Tap

What a bunch of arrogant, pat-self-on-the-back nonsense. We don't throw our garbage into our oceans and rivers. Asia and Africa do. 90% of the plastic in the ocean comes from Africa and Asia. Everybody knows that. There's nothing to study. Go to the source.

macpuzl May 20, 2019 04:13 PM
Turning Off the Tap

Psychological projection at its finest.

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