Lia Collabello calls it "plastic smog," billions of tons of microplastics eddying in huge gyres across the oceans.
As many as a half-million pieces of discarded plastic bags, water bottles and bottle caps, fishing line, straws, balloons, beer cups, toothbrushes float per every square kilometer of the ocean, researchers estimate. The stuff is virtually indestructible.
It get discarded as litter and washed into waterways often enough that a recent study from The Citadel estimated that more than 7 tons at any given time are breaking down to squiggles called microplastics in the tide and waves of Charleston Harbor.
That kills marine life. In the water, the plastics resemble jellyfish and then smaller organisms that fish feed on. The larger pieces cut off digestion in sea turtles, the bags shred, choke or strangle birds. The plastics are toxic. No one knows yet what the impacts will be on the food chain and human life.
Microplastics are now found in virtually every environment, from the massive ocean eddies to the human body, and the manufacture of plastics keeps coming. When researchers for The 5 Gyres Institute began to tackle the problem, they realized recycling and cleanup efforts had been overwhelmed and maybe the only way to stop it is to turn it around.
"The plastics were coming down the pipeline so rapidly we needed to work upstream," said Collabello, the institute's community and partnerships director.
That's the thinking behind "the plastic economy," one of the new sound bites in the not-so-new circular economy concept. The institute has endorsed the approach, and it's won the support of organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and Dow Chemicals.
The idea is to incorporate reuse into the manufacture, distribution and retail industries to cut costs and potentially increase profits, rather than rely on recycling — an inefficient and largely unprofitable last step. Accenture, a business consulting company, estimates an overall conversion to the approach could mean an additional $4.5 trillion in economic growth by 2030, as well as the societal and environmental benefits.
"It's really about eradicating waste from the system," said Jennifer Gerholdt, the chamber foundation's director of sustainability. "At its core it's really an economic development opportunity. There's been a lot of interest in it, obviously."
By developing and marketing plastics for single use rather than reusing when possible, the plastics industry alone loses an estimated $80 billion to $120 billion per year, according to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation study. Meanwhile, the environmental cost is $40 billion per year.
Collabello is the for The 5 Gyres Institute, an international nonprofit battling plastic pollution. She will be on the Social and Economic Costs of Aquatic Debris panel at Breaking Down Plastic, a March 30 summit that the institute is collaborating on with the South Carolina Aquarium and Lonely Whale Foundation.
The summit is a day-long ticketed event. It's accompanied by two separate-fee events: A preconference workshop on the launch of the aquarium's citizen science initiative battling pollution will include a trip to Morris Island; a post-conference panel discussion and dinner will be held to talk about solutions to the problem.
Reservations are required for the discussion and dinner. For more information, go to plastic.scaquarium.org or contact the aquarium at 843-577-3474.
Nearly 1 billion tons of plastic are manufactured around the world each year. The MacArthur foundation estimates that as much as a third of it never even makes it to the trash can. Recycling only captures about 14 percent, and the economics of the industry are so tenuous that recycled plastics often are just dumped into landfills.
The summit is a continuation of what Kevin Mills, aquarium president, called a reinvention of the facility from an exhibit hall to a conservation education organization using as a springboard a $5 million expansion of its Sea Turtle Care Center to a first-floor marquee attraction where customers can watch and interact with the work.
The center is expected to open to the public in the spring. The aquarium's redirection has come about as the $10 million-per-year operation battles stagnating attendance after 15 years in business, with limited capacity, increasing costs and facing the prospect of charging potentially prohibitive fees to keep up.