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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Macro Cost of Micro Contamination

Micro level contamination yields tremendous hidden costs to communities, the environment and food chain systems. Though often not seen by the human eye, fragmented microplastic pieces are poison to our soils | water microbial communities as well as to fish, mammals, birds and most all life forms. 

Prominent organizations - Plastic Pollution CoalitionAlgalita and The 5 Gyres Institute (5 Gyres) to name several - are dedicated to researching and educating on the plastic pollution crisis in our oceans and waterways. The facts are chilling:


The amount of plastic that enters the ocean each year.


The estimated number of pieces of plastic floating on the ocean surface.


Once in our waterways, plastics act as sponges, soaking up all the chemicals – like PCB, DDT – that don’t mix with salt water.


Toxic-laden plastics look super tasty to fish. And we all know fish look tasty to us.

Dynamic Duo: Rick & Lia
The above facts were extracted from 5 Gyres Director of Global Partnerships & Community Engagement Lia Colabella's MORE OCEAN, Less Plastic presentation at the Fifth Annual National Zero Waste Business Conference (NZWBC) hosted in Austin June 1 - 3. Lia teamed with Natur-Tec Director Business Development, North America Rick Lombardo on the Elemental Impact (Ei)-hosted The Macro Cost of Micro Contamination panel moderated by Ei Founder Holly Elmore.

While Lia presented on the documented plastic pollution crisis in our oceans, Rick educated on a similar dilemma building within our soils in his Compostable Plastics vs. Traditional Plastics presentation.

To help understand the origins of microplastic contamination, Rick educated on fragmentation, biodegradability and compostability as follows:

Fragmentation – first step in the biodegradation process, in which organic matter is broken down into microscopic fragments.

Biodegradability – complete microbial assimilation of the fragmented product as a food source by the soil microorganisms.

Compostability – complete assimilation within 180 days in an industrial compost environment. 

Note the difference between biodegradability and compostibility is TIME. By definition, material decomposes within 180 days while bio-degradation may take as long as millions of years.

Due to the fragmentation process, ocean plastic pollution is now referred to as plastic smog. Clean-up is challenging to impossible due to the microscopic size of the plastic. Aquatic life consumes the fragmented plastic; larger pieces remain within the digestive tract and smaller ones integrate within the flesh. Thus, plastic enters the human food system!

3 month fish with 17 pieces
of plastic in stomach
Lia provided a visual of a three month old rainbow runner with 17 pieces of plastic in its stomach.

Starting with the basics, Rick explained the origins of plastics with a reminder most traditional plastics are derived from petrochemicals. After an overview of the important role compost plays in soil health, Rick shared the role compostable plastics, derived from organic sources, play in effective post-consumer food waste collection for compost programs.

To ensure a contaminant-free compost, it is important foodservice ware (cups, plates, flatware & other containers) are BPI Certified Compostable, an independent third party certification program. Rick gave an overview of the ASTM 6400 and ASTM D6868 Standards at the foundation of the BPI Certification requirements.

Rick showcased contamination at compost facilities resulting from traditional plastics. In addition, Rick addressed "green washing" through look alike products and deceptive product descriptions. "Oxo" degradable bags and degradable cutlery made from biomaterial additives and plastic resins are common contamination culprits.

degradable cutlery in
compost pile
photo courtesy of  Rick
In his presentation, Rick cited the EcoCycle | Wood's End 2011 Study, Should Plastic Coated Materials be Allowed in Materials Collected for Composting?, with a quote:
This study showed conclusively that micro-plastic fragments were shred from all plastic coated samples, whether single or double-coated. This means any plastic-coated paper product, even those that are partially screened out during the composting process, is contaminating the finished compost with plastics particles.” 
1955 Life Magazine cover
Within their respective presentations, Rick & Lia included slides on the impact of the "disposable society" that culminated in the plastic pollution | smog crisis. In 1955, Life Magazine ran a memorable cover photo celebrating the new disposable lifestyle. Lia gave shocking stats on plastic production and consumption. 95% of plastic packaging material value - $80 - 120 billion annually - is lost to the economy after a single use.

If a massive plastic clean-up is not feasible at this juncture, what can we do? Lia offered the following suggestions:

Better collection and recycling systems. “Burn & Bury” infrastructure is not the answer.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink.

Scale innovations in product and packaging design.

Bag bans, microbead laws. Global Plastic Protocol.

During the vibrant Q&A session, Holly reminded the audience the soils are equally contaminated with microplastics. Forthcoming research will substantiate plastic pollution - macro that fragments into micro - is a water | soil crisis.

The Macro Cost of Micro Contamination panel was a huge success! A prominent attendee confided in Holly "this was the BEST conference panel - I learned so much and I appreciate gaining visibility to such important issues!"

Rick and Lia's PPT presentations are available on the Ei NZWBC page. The ZWA Blog article, A "Tuned In" Industry Catches a Vibrant Zero Waste Beat, is a NZWBC program overview while the Ei FB album, 2016 National Zero Waste Business Conference, is a conference pictorial recount.

Scott w/ Laura Turner Seydel &
PPC Co-Founder Dianna Cohen
In March 2015, Ei Chair Scott Seydel presented at the Plastic GYRE Symposium: Artists, Scientists and Activists Respond hosted jointly by the Welch Foundation at Georgia State University, David J. Sencer Museum of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC). The ZWA Blog article, Plastic GYRE Symposium: Artists, Scientists and Activists Respond, is a synopsis of the powerful symposium along with an introduction to the plastic pollution crisis.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation published the January 2016 The New Plastic Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics report with a circular economy approach to address the future of plastics. For the first time, the report is a vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste and outlines concrete steps towards achieving the systemic shifts necessary. Scott is an Ellen MacArthur Foundation USA Board Member.

SURREAL: the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature, was invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907 and by the mid-1950's the disposable society was celebrated. In just over 100 years humans mass contaminated the Earth's waters and soils with "molecules not found in nature."


  1. The statistics sound so horrible. We humans are destroying and degrading our eco system by dumping waste onto our land and soils. We are not going to last long.

    1. YES, the stats are horrible! Yet if humanity works together to shift the wasteful tides, we can shift the current probabilities of human mass destruction. In my world, I see tremendous strides taken by a group of committed individuals - I remain optimistic for humanity survival!

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