A Shout-Out to Dell for Reducing Plastic Ocean Pollution

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If there is anything that infuriates beach and ocean lovers, it is the sight of plastic trash washing up on the beach. And as we use more and more plastic instead of glass (See: Russia's Beautiful Garbage Beach) this form of pollution can only grow. A recent article in Business Insider paints a sobering picture about how much plastic is actually floating around our oceans:

Already, the ocean is filled with about 165 million tons of plastic.

That's 25 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Rebecca Harrington, Business Insider, January 26, 2017

And it's not just an esthetic issue. The presence of huge amounts of plastic in the ocean threatens marine life in a number of ways. 

Although plastics are chemically inert - they are not biodegradable - some of them, especially Styrofoam (1) physically break down into smaller pieces, which are impossible to clean up. So, the only practical way of reducing plastic ocean pollution is to keep it from getting to the ocean in the first place—something that Dell Computer seems to be taking quite seriously.

The company just released a statement saying that it was first in its industry to ship products in packaging trays made from its recycled XPS 13 2-in-1— a plastic made partly from plastic waste collected from waterways, but not from the ocean (2). It was collected before it ever got there—from various hot spots, usually river beds, from which huge quantities of plastics flow into the ocean. Dell's initiative was based on its recent white paper entitled Identifying "Sources of Ocean Plastics: A methodology for supply chains."

"Recent research estimates that an average of 8 million metric tons of plastic materials enter the worlds’ oceans annually, increasing at the rate of 7% per year as of 2015. Ocean plastic is a global environmental concern due to micro-fracturing and the subsequent harmful effect these particles have on sea life. Approximately 80% of the ocean plastic starts its journey on land with resultant deleterious effects in drainage areas, riverine environments and estuaries along the way. Jenna Jambeck, PhD, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, University of Georgia and Kara Lavender Law, PhD, Research Professor of Oceanography estimate if current trends continue there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

"Sources of Ocean Plastics: A methodology for supply chains." Dell Inc., February 2017

The company used some clever technology to come up with models that could be used to identify plastic "hot spots" around the world. In 2016 Dell sent two expeditions to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to conduct a pilot study. The expedition members visited a number of especially polluted river canals, took photographs and recorded GPS coordinates. These were later compared to satellite images of Google Earth to see if what could be seen from space was consistent with what was on the ground. It was.

These data showed that most of the hot spots were at plastic collection facilities, near rivers, 50 km or less from a seaport, and in densely populated urban areas. The Haitian data were used to develop a model for how plastic materials accumulate on land and in water. Scientists then generated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps—visual representations of where plastics would be likely to enter the ocean. 

GIS map of Port-au-Prince. Visible waste (black arrows) was seen in areas areas of dense population (brown), at recycling facilities (red), and in a number of rivers near the sea.

Using similar data from other countries, GIS maps were generated to predict plastics waste accumulation sites in other areas. Of particular interest is Southeast Asia — the source of 60 percent of the world's ocean plastic. So far, GIS maps have identified more than than 100 sites of concern  in China, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Expeditions to these countries are planned for 2017 to test the model that was developed in Haiti. If it holds up, efforts to collect plastic waste could be focused in the optimal areas.

GIS map of Manila in The Phillippines— perhaps the country with the worst plastic pollution

Dell will begin using its XPS 13 plastic packaging to ship all products beginning this April. Although the company predicts that initially, only 16,000 pounds of plastic—a drop in the bucket—will be prevented from entering the ocean in 2017, it's just a start. Since much of the plastic that is produced worldwide is used by the packaging industry, if Dell demonstrates that its program is economically and environmentally feasible, perhaps this will the beginning of a trend.   

Nice job, guys. 

 

Notes:

(1) Of all the plastics entering the environment, polystyrene (Styrofoam) is arguably the worst. It is so light (98 percent air) and breaks up so easily that it is almost impossible to recycle. Every new molecule of Styrofoam just adds to what is already out there. It is a "one-way" environmental street.

(2) XPS 13 2-in-1 is made from 25 percent of plastic recovered from waterways and 75 percent of traditionally recycled plastic.