Talking With an Ocean Plastic Rock Star

If there’s a publication, panel, presentation or advisory board on ocean plastic, chances are Kara Lavender-Law is involved. She is like a rock star in the world of ocean plastic. Law arrived at Sea Education Association back in 2003 with a fresh doctorate in physical oceanography and several years later found herself immersed in SEA’s decades-long data set of floating plastic debris. Since the 1980’s, whenever SEA’s ocean research sailing ships are underway, students and scientists tow nets along the surface twice a day and document every piece of plastic captured in every single tow. This has resulted in a motherlode of data. It is a good fit for Law, who says: “I just love digging into data!” I met Law at SEA’s 45th reunion and enjoyed digging into her thoughts on plastic.

I asked Law if biodegradable plastic is the solution to an ocean of plastic. We had eaten with biodegradable plastic forks and knives. If you’ve ever picked plastic out of ocean samples, as most of us at the reunion had, eating with non-biodegradable plastic utensils leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling. After a mere ten minutes of use, it is quite possible for a plastic fork to leak into the ocean, fragment into hundreds of tiny pieces and wreak havoc with sea life for a long, long time. After the party, our cutlery, paper plates and food scraps, were sent to an industrial composting facility and broken down into guilt-free, harmless humus.

The biodegradable cutlery was a nice touch, but Law said biodegradable plastic is not the magic answer. She explained that our utensils were only biodegradable in an industrial composting facility. They won’t break down in the backyard compost pile and can’t be recycled with other plastic. Even if industrial composting facilities were common, and they aren’t, biodegradable plastic would have to be separated from other waste and recyclables. If you’ve ever peeked into your neighbor’s recycling bin, you know that separating waste is already a challenge.

“People love to hate plastic” Law told me, “but it isn’t going away. We just need to use it wisely.” She said that plastic was made to last forever and should be used for products that need to last. Then, after a long, useful life, this plastic should be recycled into something else. “Instead of designing something to take care of our waste, or designing our waste so that the environment will take care of it” she believes, “we should preserve the resource through multiple uses.”

Reducing single-use plastic is a good step towards using plastic wisely and something we can all do. Law told me: “People see images of seabirds with plastic in their guts and animals that are entangled with plastic and it strikes this emotional chord and drives them to act.” When people ask her how they can help, she encourages them to bring their reusable coffee mugs, water bottles, grocery bags and forks with them.

On a global scale, Law says there is an urgent need for better waste management infrastructure in the developing world. With subpar landfills, spotty waste pick up and no formal recycling programs, many developing countries can’t deal with the mountains of plastic they throw out. Most plastic entering oceans leaks out of these countries. Helping them develop good waste management infrastructure is crucial to slowing the flow of plastic into the ocean.

It is nice to imagine a day when the whole world uses plastic wisely and plastic waste doesn’t leak into the oceans. We’re not there yet. You can help keep plastic out of the ocean by picking it up when you see it on the beach. It could be weathered plastic that has washed up from some far off country or a fresh plastic fork left by a careless visitor. It doesn’t matter. Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach, pick up plastic and throw it away. Restock the BlueTube with clean, used bags and make it easy for others to keep plastic out of the ocean too.