The source of ocean plastic: our obesity?

Posted on July 31, 2017

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I’m sitting on the beach with my girlfriend looking at the water. I say to her “I have this idea. You know that ocean plastic issue, particularly in the pacific? What if a drone could go through the water cleaning it up?”

As seems to always be the case, whenever I have an idea for an industry outside of mine, it already exists-

What awesome inventions, which are happening. The first is in a pilot phase; the second should be deployed in less than a year.

Of course, there is backlash with the above approaches.

  1. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
  2. When we decreased industrial plastic production by 75%, we amazingly then found a 75% reduction in plastic within birds. Leading some to believe the issue will take care of itself, and only in ~15 years, if we stop inputting the plastic.
    1. A fair amount of the plastic in the deep ocean gets hit out of its location, ending up on the beach. (I don’t know how true some of these numbers are. There is more debate in the environmental world than I ever realized.) Where I live in San Diego 6,654 pieces of plastic per cubic meter of sand were found. Sooo, just clean up our beaches rather than spend millions on high tech approaches. (Hundreds of thousands of people already volunteer to do this each year. It’s quite an impressive community.) Not to mention, we avoid wildlife harm this way.
  3. There’s still the issue of the plastic before it gets to the deep ocean.

I liken number three to how a gym cleanup works. Some gyms are notorious for people not putting their weights away, while others are spotless. It’s 100% a cultural issue, for that gym. Even a company with multiple gyms will not have each gym cleaned similarly. For the gym that sucks, you could either work on the culture, or develop a weight cleaning Roomba. The Roomba obviously necessitating quite a technological accomplishment. Besides that though, between the weight not being picked up and the Roomba getting to it, you have potential for people to be pissed off, trip on a weight, poor aesthetics, and so on. You’re treating the symptom, not the cause, which always has limitations. Doesn’t mean it’s pointless, but it’s limited.

Finally, the problem with treating symptoms is compounded by the omnipresent potential unintended consequence: does it perpetuate the cause?

  • Take blood pressure pills rather than change your lifestyle
    • I’ve had clients point blank say to me “I know I should change my diet, but I’d rather take my insulin and eat how I want.”
  • Don’t concern yourself with re-reacking your weights knowing a robot will clean it up
  • Throw plastic wherever, “The robot in the ocean will take care of it.”
    • Where are you more hygienic- in your home, or a hotel where you know there is maid service?

Eventually the robot might get it, but meanwhile there are streams, creeks, rivers, lakes, non-deep ocean water, animals eating those plastics that we then eat, resources needed to decontaminate the water…We get the picture.

Knowing where the line is in this debate is always hard. Engineers want to engineer. They can’t help themselves. They want to build, build, build. If something they built caused a problem, they want to build something else to fix that problem. They are inherently physically lazy, going to phenomenal mental lengths to avoid changing behavior or expending unnecessary calories. Hence, all the engineering.

Conservationists want to conserve. They routinely give off what many consider to be an anti-human vibe. Where if you take conserving to its most extreme, we would not have any plastic, which would be a gigantic disruption to humanity, likely necessitating a lessening of our population, which lessens our longterm probability of survival. The fact is conservationists yell a lot, but none do so from a cave.

Luckily, we can come in where there is room to avoid the debate.

How much ocean plastic could we get rid of simply by not consuming it?

We’re not talking some upheaval in our lifestyle. We’re talking doing something we already want to do- be at a healthy weight.

Having a significant portion of the population overweight / obese means consuming more plastic, as plastic is inextricably linked with food consumption and production.

  • Grocery bags
  • Sandwich bags
  • Straws
  • Lids on fast food containers
  • Food packaging
    • Bottles
      • Their caps too
    • Most of what’s in the dairy section
    • Plastic remnants in aluminum cans. BPA for instance. (Check out Rust: The Longest War for a scary introduction to BPA.)
  • Trash bags
  • Agriculture
    • Plasticulture– “The plastic materials themselves are often and broadly referred to as “ag plastics.” Plasticulture ag plastics include soil fumigation film, irrigation drip tape/tubing, nursery pots and silage bags, but the term is most often used to describe all kinds of plastic plant/soil coverings. Such coverings range from plastic mulch film, row coverings, high and low tunnels (polytunnels), to plastic greenhouses.”

Here is how much plastic we use each year in America:

ocean plastic sources of plasticplastic-use-2

plastic-use-3

https://www3.epa.gov/warm/pdfs/Plastics.pdf

We have to consider not all plastic is due to food. However, you can see above how often food is mentioned in the plastic’s use. If you look up the others where food isn’t mentioned, like PVC, you can see that’s used for food too.

Here is some data regarding plastic use by sector, in Canada and Europe (haven’t seen anything on U.S.):

where does ocean plastic come from
plastic-use-europe

Packaging consistently comes in at nearly 40%. But not all packaging is for food:

plastic-europe-packaging

Food related products coming in at 70% of packaging use. So if the United States comes in at 31.75 million tons of plastic:

  • 31.75 million * 0.39 for packaging * 0.70 for food packaging = 8,667,750 tons

This doesn’t account for food related plastic used elsewhere. For example, we can see automotive plastic use in the charts above. We use automotives to transport food. Less food to transport => less automotives => less plastic.

-> Nor does this include plastic used in other areas, like construction or engineering. For instance, obese people need stronger beds and chairs, meaning more plastic.

PlasticsEurope.org gives us 4.3% of plastic from agriculture:

plastic-consumption-by-sector

We’re still not properly accounting for automotive and other areas, but we’re doing the best we can. Where we are:

  • 8,667,750 + (31.75 million * 0.043 agriculture) = 10,033,000 tons
  • 10,033,000 / 31.75 million = 0.316

Or 31.6% of plastic use is food related. Now we need to figure out how much body weight, and subsequently food related plastic, we can take away.

How overweight are we?

According to Gallup the average American male claims a weight of 191 pounds, while the average woman claims a weight of 159 pounds. Claims being a massive caveat, as this is self reported data.

We’ll average these numbers, giving us 175 pounds, and bump this to 180 pounds, 82 kilograms, because let’s be real, people lie about their weight.

The average American height is 5’6″ or 1.68 meters. Looking at Body Mass Index:

body mass index chart

where a BMI of 22.5 is the sweet spot of what we consider the healthy zone, what if we got the average American down to 22.5?

  • Body Mass Index = (weight in kilograms) / (height in meters^2)
  • 22.5 = weight / 1.68^2
  • 22.5 * 1.68^2 = 63 kilograms

Then we could reduce the average weight from 180 pounds to 140 pounds.

The average North American consumes 100 kilograms of plastic per year. From earlier, we deduced 31.6% of this is food related.

  • 100 kilograms of plastic * 0.316 food related  = 31.6 kilograms of food related plastic per year per person
  • 31.6 kilograms of food related plastic per year per person / 82 kilograms per person = 0.39 kilograms of food related plastic per kilogram of person

If we reduce our weight to 63 kilograms,

  • 63 kg person * 0.39 kg plastic per kg person = 25 kilograms of food related plastic.

Reduction of,

  • 31.6 kilograms per person at average American weight – 25 kilograms per person at healthy weight = 6.6 kilograms per person saved, per year

A 6.6% reduction in plastic use per person by being at a healthy weight. (We started at 100 kg per person per year and reduced by 6.6 kg.) For America,

  • 6.6 kilograms * 244.8 million people = 1,615,680,000 kilograms of plastic reduction, per year
    • We’re only including adults, but this number would be bigger if we included children. (I’ve done that in other posts but the math, while remedial, gets lengthy. Think the point can be made in this post regardless.)

Percentage wise, it’s an ok dent, but considering it can happen through a person saving money and being healthier, it’s hard to argue against. (And why I don’ have sympathy for overweight tree huggers.) In absolute terms, it’s a mind boggling amount of plastic, and an indication into the incomprehensible amount we use each year.

Technology can change the world…but so can human behavior

For context, the awesome Mr. Trash Wheel,

removed one million pounds of trash in 17 months. ~59,000 pounds per month. That’s trash, not just plastic. With eating less, we could remove two hundred ninety six million pounds of solely plastic, per month.

For the sake of the point, if we equalize Mr. Trash Wheel’s trash to plastic, he would need to be implemented 5,020 more times. Think cities / ports / harbors / areas / whatever. That’s a tall order. Especially considering not everything he’s removing is plastic, and we’d get a significant reduction in total trash by eating less too. In other words, we’re giving him a generous comparison here. (Again, we haven’t even included the lesser plastic / trash from overweight children eating less. There are 25 million of them!)

While I understand the fear of perpetuating the cause, I lean towards hopefully seeing more trash wheels and WaterShark plastic collectors (and recycling, etc. I’m only focusing on water because I live by it), but in the mean time we have other methods. Ways which are more effective, improve our health, are self-serving, whether you care about the environment or not. Though I can’t imagine anybody who eats seafood could not care about ocean plastic!

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