Plastics Industry Has Known for Years That It's Polluting Oceans

CC BY 2.0. Antonio Foncubierta

But it has chosen to "deny, confuse, and fight regulation."

The issue of plastic pollution in the oceans may be a recent revelation for ordinary citizens, but it's nothing new for the plastics industry. A report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), titled "Fueling Plastics," says that plastic producers have known at least since the 1970s that their products pollute the ocean. Nevertheless, the industry has continually denied responsibility and fought regulation.

Plastic is a unique pollutant in that it persists for so long. It does not break down (except to break into smaller pieces, easier for wildlife, even plankton, to ingest) and it bio-accumulates, leading to contamination of a living host. The report indicates that the industry first became aware of problems in the 1950s, but would've had no excuse to claim ignorance by the 1970s.

Steven Feit, lead study author and an attorney for CIEL, said in a press release:

"Unfortunately, the answer to both when the plastic industry knew their products would contribute to massive public harms and what they did with that information suggests they followed Big Oil’s playbook on climate change: deny, confuse, and fight regulation and effective solutions."

It's depressing to think how different would be now if the plastics industry had acknowledged its inherent troubles a half-century ago and taken the responsible action. It could have returned to the "fishing gear and land-based disposables... made of bio-degradable products such as hemp rope or paper bags" that were commonplace prior to the 1950s. Instead, we've ended up where we are now, with one respected source predicting more plastic than fish by weight in the world's oceans by 2050.

But hindsight is 20-20, as they say, so what really matters is what's being done now. Unfortunately, the status quo remains. From the report:

"The plastics industry has usually taken two parallel positions on the question of marine waste. First, it claims that it is only responsible for plastic resin pellets and flakes because end products are out of the industry’s control. Second, it promotes reuse, recycling, and proper waste management."

We know the latter is failing miserably. In 2014, only 9.4 percent of all discarded plastics were recycled in the United States. That's 3.12 million tons out of 33.3 million tons (via Life Without Plastic book). Clearly this is not a viable solution.

There is the effort made on the part of individuals and households to reduce their plastic consumption, as seen in the growing popularity of the zero waste movement. But, as noble as this is, it's a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to the industry's sway.

What we need is accountability on the production end of things. Plastics producers need to be responsible for the entire life cycle of their goods. They need a better plan for recovery and reuse, or else they should not be allowed to produce single-use plastics that are known to be so damaging. Hopefully this report will start to point fingers where they need to go -- to the heads of companies whose willful ignorance of a serious situation decades ago has led us to the predicament our entire planet now faces.