An important recent report issued by the Center for International Environmental Law reviews the toxic nature of plastics to human health, from extraction of petroleum products from the ground through refining and manufacture of plastic, then consumer use, waste management and plastic in the environment. Plastics are toxic.
The Kauai Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has been thrust into the forefront of plastic waste management by trying to determine the best way to rid the island of plastic marine debris while trying to protect both human health and the environment from global climate change.
Our marine debris program collects and weighs over 50 tons a year of plastic nets, ropes, lines, buoys and miscellaneous trash that we need to safely dispose of.
The deadliest of marine plastic debris is derelict fishing gear that entangles, harms and kills marine animals, and eventually breaks down into microplastics and microfibers that are ingested, which can thereby also harm and kill.
According to Kauai County’s 2017 Waste Characterization Study, an estimated 9,595 tons of plastic was disposed of at the Kekaha landfill in 2017. Meanwhile, about 1,255 tons of plastic was diverted from the landfill through recycling and commercial backhauling to the mainland.
We recognize that marine debris plastics comprise a toxic group of chemicals that emit greenhouse gases (GHG) and other substances as they break down under UV radiation and aging; that they adsorb toxic chemicals from the environment, releasing them later; and that plastic has entered into the food chain of aquatic organisms large and small.
Therefore, we do not support developing a circular economy for plastics. Instead, plastic should be removed from usage, sequestered out of the environment, and new production ended.
Furthermore, we do not support the process of burning plastic products (e.g. at H-Power), or fuel made from plastics, to create energy unless zero toxic gases and minimal GHGs are released into the atmosphere.
Plastics should not be “recycled,” they should be “transformed” and removed from the environment. At the moment, the only solution for Kauai is to bury plastics in the Kekaha landfill. But Surfrider is looking for alternatives.
As Kauai County makes plans for a new landfill and continues their waste-diversion efforts, we advocate for the following conditions:
• GHG emissions are minimized in the transformation process, in transporting the final product, and in the creation of any waste;
• The process minimizes energy consumption, heat released into atmosphere, and is designed to produce only a minimal carbon footprint;
• No toxic chemicals should be used in transforming the plastics, nor produced in the process;
• No microfibers or microplastics are produced in the process, nor are shed from the final product;
• The final transformed product is coated, encapsulated, or otherwise sealed from exposure to the environment.
• The process is local or regional, provides both employment to the local community and a finished product useful to the local community;
• The process is designed to become economically self-sufficient over time.
Surfrider looks forward to working with the county and other community organizations to protect human health and the environment while ridding the island of plastic waste.
Dr. Carl J. Berg, Ph.D., is senior scientist with the Kauai Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Dr. Gordon LaBedz, M.D., is vice chair of the Executive Committee of the Kauai Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.