Shawn Dewane of Costa Mesa is the free-marketeer point man for Poseidon Resources, the water dealer that wants to combine public and private funds to build a $1 billion ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
The project would be built under the auspices of the Orange County Water District(OCWD), which manages the county’s groundwater basin and provides 2.4 million north-county residents with 75 percent of their water.
By Sarah “Steve” Mosko Special to the Surf City Voice
There are signs that the era where plastic microbeads from personal care products pollute bodies of water worldwide and aquatic food chains might be drawing to a close.
Microbeads are miniscule spheres of plastic commonly added as abrasives to personal care products like face scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste. They’re designed to wash down the drain, but because of their small size, they escape sewage treatment plants. Once discharged into oceans, rivers or lakes or onto land, they’re virtually impossible to clean up.
They’re typically made of polyethylene or polypropylene and do not biodegrade within any meaningful human time scale, especially in aquatic environments. And, like other plastics, they attract and accumulate oily toxins commonly found in bodies of water (e.g. DDT, PCBs and flame retardants).
Microbeads resemble fish eggs, likely contributing to the documented ingestion of microplastics in the millimeter and under size range by sea life in bottom tiers of the ocean food web, including zooplankton, sandworms, barnacles and small crustaceans. The potential for ingested microplastics to transfer up aquatic food chains is very real, as demonstrated by studies revealing transfer from the tiniest to larger zooplankton and from mussels to shore crabs. There is parallel risk for harmful chemicals associated with microplastics to increasingly concentrate in animal tissues, adding threat to humans and other life forms dining at the top of the chain.
Scientist are also discovering direct ingestion of microplastics by fish which humans eat and that toxic chemicals from the plastics transfer to fish flesh.
Beginning with the pioneering measurements of plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre by the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the buildup of plastic pollution in all five of the world’s oceanic gyres is now well-established. Together with the recent discovery of microplastic accumulation in the U.S. Great Lakes and some rivers, this has spurred tangible momentum among some U.S. politicians toward elimination of microbeads in personal care products.
For example, the Great Lake states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and New York all considered legislative bans last year, though Illinois emerged as the only state to enact one, effective late 2017. The 2013 study spearheaded by Santa Monica’s 5 Gyres Institute reported that much of the microplastic debris in the Great Lakes strongly resembles microbeads in cosmetics. Lake Ontario was most polluted, approximately 1.1 million microplastic fragments per square kilometer.
Then just this April, New Jersey became the second state to enact a ban, citing that manufacturers were already largely on board, given pledges to phase out microbeads by several corporations including Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever. Besides, alternative abrasives can be made from many natural materials, like beeswax, walnut shells, apricot pits, sand or salt crystals.
Meanwhile, California is reconsidering a statewide ban which failed passage last year by a single vote (AB 888, Bloom). The proposed ban, which would take effect in Jan. 2020, passed in the state assembly on May 22 and has moved on to the senate. New York’s Attorney General has also signaled intention to shoot for a ban again this year, citing that microbeads were found in three-quarters of samples of treated effluent from New York waste treatment plants. Additional states currently considering bans include Connecticut, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.
There’s even a possible national ban in the works. Two U.S. Representatives, Fred Upton of Michigan and Frank Pallone of New Jersey, have re-introduced a bill which stalled last year that would ban the sale of products with microbeads starting Jan. 2018. Because Upton is the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Pallone is the ranking committee Democrat, there is greater hope for successful passage this time around.
Things are heating up outside the United States too. The international Beat the Micro Bead campaign touts 66 participating NGOs in 32 countries and offers a free download app allowing shoppers across the globe to scan barcodes to identify which products contain plastic microbeads. The campaign’s website also posts lists of products by country that contain microbeads.
Moreover, Germany plans to promote an international effort to reduce waste from plastics, including microbeads, at the June economic summit of the Group of Seven (G-7) nations.
Appearing in the February issue of Science magazine, the findings of the first large-scale study to estimate how much plastic is actually going into the oceans are nothing short of shocking. Using data from 192 coastal countries, the researchers calculated that, just in the year 2010, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (roughly 10.5 to 28 billion pounds) entered the oceans. If nothing is done to stem the inflow of plastics, those numbers could increase ten-fold by 2025.
Given these sobering figures, world-wide elimination of microbeads in personal care products, an entirely avoidable source of plastic pollution, can’t happen soon enough.
A public forum held by Garden Grove mayor Bao Nguyen last night at the city’s community center examined the cost of and alternatives to a proposed $1 billion ocean desalination plant promoted by the Orange County Water District.
Those issues–and the panel of local experts who discussed them last night–have been all but ignored by most of the OCWD Board of Directors, some of whom have strong financial and political ties to Poseidon Resources Inc., the company that would build the plant, and its big-business allies.
The OCWD maintains the county’s groundwater basin, which holds 66 million acre-feet of water and provides about 70 percent of the water used in central and northern Orange County, serving 2.3 million people.
For the past 18 months a clique of four board members, Cathy Green, Shawn Dewane, Stephen Sheldon, and Denis Bilodeau, joined last January by Garden Grove Councilmember Dina Nguyen, have steered the District straight toward a long-term contract with Poseidon.
OCWD staff presented a proposed term sheet (pre-contract) to the board on May 14.
The board approved the term-sheet 7 -3. Nugyen voted for it.
Nguyen, who was the beneficiary of $11,000 in “independent expenditures” by a Poseidon related PAC in her recent election to the OCWD board, was invited to participate in the forum but was a no-show.
Staff is now negotiating a contract with Poseidon that would lock the district into buying 56,000 acre-feet of desalinated ocean water per year, regardless of need, for the next half-century.
Poseidon’s water would cost about $2,000 an acre-foot out the door, more than 3 times what OCWD currently pays for the untreated water it imports from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET) to help maintain the county’s groundwater basin supply.
Poseidon and its allies on the OCWD board claim that its more expensive water would be a “reliability premium” akin to car insurance that would add to the county’s water supply portfolio and guarantee water during a drought.
But, in order to be financially viable, Poseidon is demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in ratepayer-backed subsidies for the first 15 years of the contract. In return, MET rules require that Poseidon’s 56,000 acre-feet of desalinated water replace an equal amount of (cheaper) imported water, which would then be made available to water agencies outside of OCWD’s service area.
There would be no net gain in water supply for the district, which would be paying three times as much for Poseidon’s replacement water while subsidizing the cheaper imported water for other agencies. And the county wouldn’t receive more water during a drought.
This reporter has repeatedly asked Poseidon officials and OCWD directors to explain the benefit to ratepayers of paying three times as much for water than necessary and subsidizing cheaper water for ratepayers outside of Orange County, but to so far mum’s the word.
For the first 15 years, the proposed pricing scheme would pay Poseidon a surcharge of up to 20 percent on imported MET water (at the higher MWD treated rate) on top of a 3 percent annual compounded surcharge that recurs for the life of the contract, underlying subsequently declining variable surcharge rates.
A Surf City Voice review of the proposed pricing scheme shows that after 15 years ratepayers would pay up to $2,700 per acre-foot for Poseidon’s water (assuming the required $56,000 af) versus about $1,048 per acre-foot for untreated MET water, which comes out to about $1.8 billion versus about $700 million in total for that period.
That’s about $1.1 billion dollars that could be used for the cheaper and more efficient water supply alternatives ignored by OCWD and Poseidon but examined by the forum panel of experts.
Panel members are former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, Irvine Ranch Water District’s Peer Swan, Coastkeeper’s Ray Hiemstra, and Garden Grove water officials. Members of the public, including Westminster City Councilmember Diana Carey, also spoke.
On March 11, the San Diego Union-Tribune posted an op-ed, “Desalination makes sense for Orange County”, written by Assemblywoman Pat Bates (Laguna Niguel). It is unclear why she was addressing the California Coastal Commission since the project was not on its March agenda.
The paper chose not to allow comments on her article. So here is my response to her piece which reads as if lifted from a Poseidon Resources press release.
She goaded me from her first sentence: “Anyone who has stepped outside in the past year has undoubtedly seen the effects of our state’s historic drought conditions.”
Perhaps Ms. Bates should take a look around her own district before she goes off with her dire news of “empty reservoirs, dry wells, and brown, arid landscapes across California.”
Orange County is the poster child of disregard for the drought: lush green expanses of grass in front of strip malls, road medians, HOAs, government facilities, and private properties. Any claim she makes that Orange County has “tried” to do its part is laughable.
It is interesting that Ms. Bates would chime in on a project outside her district that runs roughly from Dana Point to Cardiff by the Sea in San Diego County. Her district imports nearly 100 percent of its water. North Orange County imports only 30 percent and it could be zero if we managed the groundwater basin equitably.
“Trying” isn’t good enough, especially when it places the burden of costly boutique desalinated water on those who are actually “doing” something.
Residents of Santa Ana and Westminster are close to an ideal goal of consumption of 100 gallons per person per day. At the other extreme are communities like Villa Park and Northern San Diego County, where 500 gallons per person per day is the norm.
Why is 100 gallons per person per day ideal? Because at that level, North Orange County could get nearly 100 percent of its water from the groundwater basin.
The manner of water allocation used by the Orange County Water District and its member agencies places a disproportionately higher cost burden on those who consume the least amount of water. In effect, those who aren’t just “trying” but are implementing conservation will be subsidizing the explosive costs of ocean desalinated water.
And if North Orange County goes all in for an ocean desalination project, will Ms. Bates be sponsoring a bill to enable the OCWD rate payer to subsidize water sales to South Orange County water agencies?
Ms. Bates then goes on to cheer lead for desalination: “Southern California communities have rallied behind desalinated ocean water as a reliable, safe and environmentally friendly solution to long-term water shortages.”
It is interesting to note that a small consortium of communities in her own district have spent millions of dollars building and evaluating a pilot project in Dana Point only to discover they couldn’t “rally” enough support for such an expensive endeavor.
Ms. Bates reports on the “nearly completed” project in Carlsbad. But we are still waiting to see how the San Diego County Water Authority allocates the costs of this project, a painful task they have been discussing and postponing since 2012. The devil is in the details, details that were not sorted out prior to signing a “take or pay” contract.
Ms. Bates calls desalination “out of the box” thinking but in reality it is a knee jerk reaction by politicians who have ignored California’s failed water policies, archaic water laws, and fractured governance.
Addressing long term water needs requires long term thinking which will never be the domain of politicians in Sacramento.
It is much easier for elected officials to apply a “technical” fix knowing they will be out of office before the bill arrives.
What we need are courageous politicians who dare to engage with citizens in understanding and exploring solutions that actually address water needs and not water wants.
North Orange County does not need an ocean desalination project and hasn’t even figured out what they would do with the water. If Ms. Bates thinks one is needed in South Orange County, then she should address her own district’s needs first.
By Sarah “Steve” Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice
I confess, my husband and I both pee in our backyard garden, waiting until nightfall so as not to surprise neighbors.
We’ve always been comfortable relieving ourselves alongside lonely highways, even in daylight when waiting for the next bathroom seems unreasonable. But peeing in our own garden started as something of a lark, a combo of enjoying feeling a little naughty while also stealing a moment to take in the stillness of the night.
However, after a little research into the contents of urine and the ecological footprint of toilet flushing, I’m approaching my nightly garden visitations with a renewed sense of purpose, armed with sound reasons to continue the habit.
#1Urine isa good fertilizer, organic and free Contrary to popular belief, urine is usually germ-free unless contaminated with feces. It’s also about 95 percent water. The chief dissolved nutrient is urea, a nitrogen (N)-rich waste metabolite of the liver. Consequently, urine is high in N. Synthesized urea, identical to urea in urine, is also the number one ingredient of manufactured urea fertilizers which now dominate farming industry. Furthermore, urine contains lower amounts of the other two main macronutrients needed for healthy plant growth, phosphorous (P) and potassium (K).
Poor soil conditions and the prohibitive cost of manufactured fertilizers in third world countries have inspired rigorous study of urine fertilizer as a sustainable strategy to reduce poverty and malnutrition and promote worldwide food security. As example, in an in-depth 2010 practical guide for using urine as crop fertilizer, an international research institute (Stockholm Research Institute) writes that, “Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur as well as micronutrients are all found in urine in plant available forms. Urine is a well balanced nitrogen rich fertilizer which can replace and normally gives the same yields as chemical fertilizer in crop production.”
Depending on water intake, humans produce roughly 1-2 liters of urine a day. With proper planning the urine from one person during one year could suffice to fertilize”300-400 m2 of crop,” according to the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Urine as crop fertilizer is not just a theoretical concept, but has been put into practice successfully all over the world, including Africa, northern Europe, India, Central America, and even the United States. In fact, if you live near Brattleboro, Vermont, you can contact the Rich Earth Institute to participate as a “urine donor” in the first field studies of urine as fertilizer in the United States.
Obviously, there are important guidelines and safety procedures for farms and entire communities that rely on urine fertilizer for crop production – like special two-compartment toilets designed to collect urine free of fecal contamination – which are unnecessary for someone like me who pees directly in the garden and with more casual purpose in mind. Guidelines that do apply to everyone, however, include applying the urine to soil rather than foliage and mixing the urine in right away.
#2 Combat drought Regions in all five continents are in the grip of sustained droughts. One-third of the contiguous United States was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought as of the end of August, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. My home state of California is suffering record-breaking drought with no end in sight. Governor Brown recently called on Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent, and peeing in the garden gives me a good head-start to meeting that goal.
On average, Americans each use 80-100 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Seventy percent of a household’s water consumption is typically for indoor uses, with toilet flushing the biggest water hog (see pie chart).
Although newer toilets generally use 1.6 gallons per flush, older ones use at least three gallons. So someone flushing urine 6 to 8 times per day could easily save 10 to 24 gallons of water daily by diverting all their urine to the yard. But, even if collecting urine in the daytime is out of the question – say, if you work outside the home or simply consider peeing into a receptacle and ferrying it to the yard a deal-breaker – the water savings by just peeing in the yard twice a night could easily amount to an annual water savings of between 1000 and 2000 gallons per person.
# 3 Slow groundwater depletion Based on satellite data, NASA recently released an alarming report describing dramatic groundwater depletion in the Colorado River Basin in under a decade. The Colorado River Basin is considered the water lifeline of the western United States. NASA calculated the water loss at 53 million acre feet, nearly twice the volume of freshwater in Nevada’s Lake Mead. The real shocker is that groundwater loss accounted for three-fourths of the depletion, and no one knows how much groundwater is left or when it could run out.
In California, a third of the state’s water supply comes from regional groundwater. Rapidly dwindling groundwater levels, due to unregulated well drilling and extraction, is threatening the availability of water for agriculture and even human consumption, finally prompting California to enact a package of critical groundwater protections in Sept.
Individuals can do their part too, by peeing in the yard or, at least, adhering to the adage I grew up with, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down.” If each of California’s 12.5 million households flushed just four fewer times daily, the drain on the state’s groundwater would be lessened by 25-50 million gallons annually.
#4 Bypass sewage treatment plants Though the pathogens (germs) in household wastewater come primarily from feces, many pharmaceuticals and chemicals in personal care products (PPCPs) are excreted in the urine, producing global pollution of natural bodies of water and even drinking water because sewage treatment systems are not designed to eliminate such substances.
Everything flushed down the toilet is piped to either onsite septic tanks or more often to municipal treatment plants where the liquid undergoes a two-step process, first separation from the bulk solids through settling and then incubation with bacteria to digest disease-causing pathogens and produce an effluent safer for return to the natural environment. The treated effluent from septic tanks is allowed to seep on-site into the ground, whereas treatment plants typically release directly into rivers, lakes and oceans.
Depending on regional policies, the effluent might also undergo so-called tertiary treatment involving chemical purification and/or microfiltration before release. Water shortages are increasingly driving reuse of tertiary-treated wastewater for landscaping, recharging groundwater aquifers and even for crop irrigation, prompting closer scrutiny of the water’s purity. However, even tertiary treatment is not generally designed to remove PPCPs.
Happily, soil generally does a good job of trapping and eliminating many pollutants, offering an alternative to conventional wastewater treatment of urine. When a liquid is doused onto soil, pollutants adhere to soil particles then undergo biodegradation by the abundant fungal and bacterial flora in soil. Sunlight and the rich oxygen content of soil also foster degradation. In fact, the filtration and incubation steps in conventional wastewater treatment mimic these naturally occurring processes in soil.
In the last decade, researchers have been measuring how fast common PPCPS biodegrade in soils and typically find half-lives on the order of days or weeks.
So letting soil decontaminate your urine seems a sound idea. A word of caution is in order, however, for those of us in more developed countries where our urine is more likely contaminated with PPCPs. A recent study reported solid evidence that irrigating the soil of common field vegetables with tertiary-treated water produced low levels of PPCPs in the edible portion of the vegetables. Until we know whether such residues represent any health risk, it seems wise to deposit urine outside the home vegetable garden.
#5 Reconnect with nature The simple act of returning my urine directly to the soil, whilst attending to the sights, sounds and smells of the night, has heightened my awareness of my place in nature. It’s also confronted me with a glaring reality, that every man-made environmental ill threatening all life forms, everything from global climate change to the buildup of PPCPs and plastic waste in bodies of water and industrial chemicals in human and animal tissues, stems from an ill-conceived notion that humans are somehow exempt from the laws of nature.
Obviously, spotty progress can be made here and there applying new technologies or policies to address focused environmental issues. For example, California just became the first to institute a state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags. Though I’ve welcomed this legislation, I also see how limited the impact will be on the global environment: Since the dawn of the “age of plastics” in the 1950s, non-biodegradable plastics have come to pervade nearly every aspect of daily life in westernized societies, and the steep rise globally in the production of consumer plastics is projected to continue unabated into the future.
Peeing in my garden has instilled in me a sobering certitude that solving the planet’s looming environmental crises will require something far more fundamental and all-encompassing than regional policy changes. A global paradigm shift is needed, both away from believing we can unthinkingly manipulate and destroy natural resources and toward humbling seeking and embracing our natural and sustainable place within this unspeakably beautiful garden that is planet earth.
Though peeing in the garden is now a habit with me, it still feels a little risqué, and I like that.
By Sarah “Steve” Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice
You’d think that finding far less plastic pollution on the ocean’s surface than scientists expected would be something to cheer about. The reality, however, is that this is likely bad news, for both the ocean food web and humans eating at the top. Ingestion of tiny plastic debris by sea creatures likely explains the plastics’ disappearance and exposes a worrisome entry point for risky chemicals into the food web.
Except for a transient slowdown during the recent economic recession, global plastics consumption has risen steadily since plastic materials were introduced in the 1950s and subsequently incorporated into nearly every facet of modern life. Annual global consumption is already about 300 million tons with no foreseeable leveling off as markets expand in the Asia-Pacific region and new applications are conceived every day.
Land-based sources are responsible for the lion’s share of plastic waste entering the oceans: littering, wind-blown trash escaping from trash cans and landfills, and storm drain runoff when the capacity of water treatment plants is exceeded.
Furthermore, recent studies reveal an alarming worldwide marine buildup of microplastics (defined a millimeter or less) from two other previously unrecognized sources. Spherical plastic microbeads, no more than a half millimeter, are manufactured into skin care products and designed to be washed down the drain but escape water treatment plants not equipped to capture them. Plastic microfibers from laundering polyester fabrics find their way to the ocean via the same route. Continue reading Disappearing Ocean Plastics: Nothing to Celebrate→
Commentary by Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice
Ocean desalination in Huntington Beach makes sense…if you don’t really think about it. But thinking about it requires understanding all the consequences of Poseidon Resources’ proposed project.
Take for example the unnamed city staffer who probably thought he was brokering a good deal for residents when he negotiated 3000 acre feet/year of Poseidon’s water for 5 percent below the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California imported rate–a savings of $150,000. The problem is that if Orange County Water District (OCWD) approves partnering with Poseidon, the Replenishment Rate (RA) for all of the water we pump from the aquifer will rise by at least $103/acre foot according to their estimates. Huntington Beach pumps on average 20,000 acre feet per year. That means that rate payers will pay an additional $2 million per year for water to save $150,000.
Thinking about it seems to be the last thing that Poseidon and the water agencies want us to do. OCWD recently reneged on their promise to convene a citizen’s committee. Their Board of Directors along with the redundant Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) meets in almost anonymity, their agendas often obscuring the real nature of discussions, thus thwarting public participation. They certainly don’t want people really thinking about it.
Huntington Beach’s Mayor Matt Harper similarly impedes anyone, including other elected officials, from thinking through ocean desalination. Within a two week period recently, Harper placed items on the agenda of the obscure West Orange County Water Board (WOCWB) and the City’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee aimed at hastening agreements that were not understood by members or staff.
At the WOCWB, he invited Poseidon’s pipeline consultant (former Huntington Beach City employee Howard Johnson) to present a pipeline lease arrangement sought by Poseidon. Information was not available prior to the meeting. The item was placed on the meeting agenda as an information item rather than an action item. California’s open meeting laws preclude action on information items, but this did not stop Harper. He attempted to garner the votes to move forward on the hiring of consultants and the writing of pipeline lease agreements. Even staff was caught off guard and not prepared to give their own presentation or answer questions. Fortunately the representatives of Westminster, Seal Beach, and Garden Grove were uncomfortable with acting so hastily and the motion failed.
Undaunted by this setback, Harper moved on to the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee. He invited a representative from MWDOC to present an item that their board has been pursuing for several years, to re-categorize desalinated water as a “core” service rather than a “choice” service. Few residents are familiar with this issue and even fewer are likely to have given it much thought. If MWDOC is able to move desalination from a choice service to a core service, then Huntington Beach and other North Orange County cities will be forced to subsidize south Orange County water agencies and their plans to build a desalination project to serve south Orange County. That makes about as much sense as Orange County subsidizing San Diego County’s desalination project.
The problem with those of us who have spent time thinking about the devil in Poseidon’s details, is that it turns you into a cynic seeking a semblance of rationality in the situation.
I can come up with only one rational reason for such blatant disregard for the public’s interest and the facts–money. Money turns many self proclaimed fiscal conservatives into corporate welfare campaigners.
A glance at Matt Harper’s recent campaign donors tells the story:
Poseidon Resources, $2,540; Simon Wong Engineering, $249; Geosyntec Consultants, $250; Arcadis, $250; AKM Consulting Engineers, $250; Psomas, $540; Parsons, $250; Nossaman, $189—a total of $4,518 from donors directly or indirectly involved in promoting the ocean desalination business.
Poseidon and their brethren have spent millions to keep you and your elected officials from making sense of their uneconomic and imprudent project. In effect, there will be no thinking allowed on their watch.
Debbie Cook is a former mayor of Huntington Beach and is an advocate for greater transparency in public water management.
By Sarah (Steve) Mosko Special to the Surf City Voice
Imagine using a thimble to empty a bathtub, with the faucet still running. That’s how experts on ocean plastics pollution generally see schemes focused on extracting the debris from the open ocean instead of strategies to prevent plastic waste from getting there in the first place.
Interest in methods to rid the oceans of plastic debris is motivated by very real threats to the entire ocean food web. The “North Pacific Garbage Patch” is the most studied of the five subtropical gyres, gigantic whirlpools where waste is picked up and concentrated by slow-swirling currents. There, plastic debris already outweighs zooplankton, tiny creatures at the base of the food web, by a factor of 36:1, according to the latest trawls by the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach.
Conventional plastics do not biodegrade on land or in water, but become brittle in sunlight and break apart into ever smaller bits of plastic, still containing toxic substances introduced during manufacture – like phthalates, bisphenol-A and flame retardants. Plastics also attract and concentrate persistent oily pollutants present in seawater. So plastic debris not only threatens sea creatures through entanglement or by clogging their digestive tracts, but also introduces dangerous chemicals into the food chain.
Except for the tiny fraction of plastics which has been incinerated, all plastic ever manufactured is still somewhere on the planet. And, with virgin plastics production still greatly outpacing recycling – which in the United States averaged only eight percent in 2010 – our oceans will continue to become more polluted with plastics until something is done to stop it. But given the vastness of the oceans, which cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface or some 360 million square kilometers, the question is, what realistically can be done?
There are obvious realities which have to be confronted in any offshore cleanup plan, starting with how to find the debris. Gyres are loosely-defined expanses the size of continents. Even in the center where debris accumulation peaks, the effect is of a plastic soup with fragments distributed throughout the water column to a depth of roughly 20 meters. And, plastics are in no way confined to gyres, but amassing throughout marine environments as diverse as shoreline mangroves and the Arctic seafloor.
Next is the challenge of selectively extracting plastics, which become microscopic over time, without destroying sea life, and what about plastics already colonized by sea creatures? Then follows the dilemma of what to do with the plastics once extracted and, of course, how to fund the operation. Moreover, any device deployed in the sea would have to contend with the highly corrosive forces wrought by constant motion, violent storms, and accumulation of bird droppings and barnacles.
Two very different, recently proposed cleanup schemes serve to illustrate inherent challenges.
The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP) is a Santa Cruz-based non-profit proposing to build a manned, 65-foot sailing catamaran designed to skim from the sea’s surface four common types of plastics that float: #2HDPE, #4LDPE, #5PP, & #6PS. Polymers that don’t float, like nylon or #3PVC, could not be targeted. However, as 80 percent of marine plastic pollution is from land-based sources and predominantly from single-use products made of the targeted polymers, a meaningful dent might be made in the millions of tons of plastic debris believed to pollute the N. Pacific Gyre alone.
Gyre currents conveniently sweep floating debris into “streams” called windrows, visible to the naked eye. TCOP’s co-founder, Jim Holm, says that sophisticated technologies already on the open market enable both pinpointing the densest streams for cherry picking and removing floating debris from the water. Plastics are reaped onto a conveyor that, by vibrating, wards off turtles and swimming fish. Creatures which have colonized the debris would be stripped by hand and returned to the sea.
The plan is to target only debris captured by a ¼ inch mesh, as removing the larger stuff should, consequently, diminish microplastics over time. A hand-held spectrophotometer would aid in sorting plastics by polymer.
For TCOP, the game changer was stumbling upon a Japanese company, Blest, that already markets a plastics-to-light crude oil converter that can generate a gallon of fuel from eight pounds of plastic waste. There are no toxic air emissions (just water vapor and carbon dioxide) because the plastics are not incinerated, just heated for distillation into fuels.
TCOP hopes to create the first-ever shipboard converter to generate enough fuel to supplement the wind and solar sail technology that would power the catamaran. The costly transfer of collected plastics to landfills or recyclers (located primarily in China) would be eliminated. Priced at $199,000, the converter is designed to handle ~500 pounds of plastic in a day.
TCOP is seeking funding to deploy a test run in the N. Pacific Gyre. Holm is forthright in dismissing any fantasy that the endeavor would be profitable, acknowledging the indispensable support from corporate and philanthropic organizations.
A Dutch engineering student, Boyan Slat, recently made a media splash for a different cleanup design which capitalizes instead on a gyre’s natural currents to sweep debris to a fixed collection vessel anchored to the seafloor. Though few details are offered at this point, Slat conceives of a giant manta ray-shaped platform sporting two long, arm-like booms in an open “V” configuration for trapping floating debris ushered in by the current.
The round-surfaced booms would encourage plankton and other creatures to slide under unharmed, while plankton captured accidentally would somehow be separated out by gentle centrifugation. Slat has boldly predicted that only 24 such devices, staggered in a zigzagging line spanning one radius of the N. Pacific Gyre, could virtually clean it up in just five years by removing an estimated 7,250,000,000 kg of plastic debris. He postulates that the venture could be paid for by selling collected plastics to recyclers.
Slat’s design is still in the early idea stage, as his Ocean Cleanup Foundation was just founded this year, and he is seeking donations totaling $80,000 to conduct feasibility studies.
There’s been no shortage of skepticism about Slat’s proposal. For example, Stiv Wilson, policy director for the non-profit 5 Gyres Institute dedicated to remediating ocean plastic pollution, points out that the average depth of the open ocean is nearly 4,000 feet, twice the deepest successful moorings to date, and that a violent storm can destroy the sturdiest anchoring. Wilson also believes the cost alone of hauling plastics back to shore and to recyclers would exceed their market value. Add to this costly spectrophotometric analysis for sorting by polymer.
The issue of whether there could ever be a market for plastics reaped from the sea definitely looms. Recycling weakens plastics’ polymer bonds, so plastics are generally “down-cycled” just once into end-products destined for landfills, like lumber. The first-ever plastic bottle with anypost-ocean content, so far housing just one “Method” brand soap, is being marketed primarily to raise awareness about the need for packaging with recycled content. Infrastructure for recycling plastics in general within the United States remains very limited. Also, whether China will continue to accept the majority of U.S.’s plastic waste is brought into question by Operation Green Fence, China’s new policy blocking highly contaminated waste materials from entering.
Even if any gyre cleanup devices are ever successfully deployed, alone they could not solve the crisis of ocean plastics pollution, a conclusion that both Holm and Slat share. After recycling, the average American generates a half pound of plastic refuse daily (USEPA). As consumption of plastics generally parallels development, worldwide plastic waste generation is expected to continue to rise into the future. It seems delusional to believe that open ocean cleanup schemes could keep pace with new plastics entering the oceans.
The only rational approach is to focus first and foremost on stemming the flow of plastics into marine environments. In addition to maximizing recycling and placing barriers at obvious ocean entry points like river mouths, significant societal transformations are needed: for consumers, a shift away from single-use plastics and, for industry, embracing “extended producer responsibility” policies which make producers responsible for the sustainability of what they manufacture.
A good start might entail a producer fee on products made of virgin plastics, asking manufacturers to take back and recycle their products, and an end to planned product obsolescence. A study recently published in Marine Pollution Bulletin confirms that marine litter is reduced when plastics are better managed on land.
For plastics pollution already at sea, oceanographer and flotsam expert Curtis Ebbesmeyer points out that maybe half a gyre’s contents is jettisoned each rotation, ferried eventually by currents onto shores. This means anyone can lend a hand in gyre cleanup by participating in the annual International Coastal Cleanup organized by the Ocean Conservancy. The next one is on Sept. 21.
Lead photo credit: Plastic debris from N. Pacific Gyre. (Algalita Marine Research Institute)
The Mesa Water District spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars preparing its general manager and communications manager for a thirty minute interview with this reporter and researching my background, according to invoices obtained by the Surf City Voice under the Public Records Act.
The invoices are only four from a total of 30 received by Mesa Water from the consulting firm of Laer Pearce Associates between October, 2008 and December, 2012 for “branding” and general public relations and marketing assistance. But they help show the District’s obsession with its public image ever since Paul Shoenberger became its general manager in 2009 and hired Stacy Taylor as its communications manager in 2010.
In chronological order, the first invoice (7976), for billing period Dec. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011, under “Media Relations”, states, “Attended 12/9 meeting with Paul and Stacy to discuss Surf City Voice interview request; drafted responses to questions submitted by reporter; worked with Taylor to help coordinate interview.”
Also under Media Relations:
Briefed Stacy on potential upcoming KOCE interview request; discussed strategy.
Prepared District messaging regarding ocean desalination.
Drafted quote and identified photos for Water Operator magazine inquiry.
Reviewed OC Register, Daily Pilot and local news blogs for issues pertinent to Mesa Water; provided recommendations as necessary.
Other categories were Collateral, Event Support, Branding, Community Outreach (no billings), and Website.
True to form for most of the LPA invoices, Invoice #7976 bills $4,500.00 on Media Relations of the $5,630.20 bill total, but does not show a detailed hourly breakdown for each subcategory of work, so there is no way of knowing how much time was spent researching the Surf City Voice or other news services or how much it cost per hour (when asked to explain the incomplete billing procedures, Taylor did not respond).
Likewise, Invoice #7982 (Jan. 1 – Jan. 31, 2012) lists $3,610.00 billed for Media Relations of a total bill of $8,162.00:
Attended 1/4 meeting with Paul and Stacy to prepare for Surf City Voice Interview; drafted bullet-point messages for Paul’s use during the interview; prepared press release following the interview recapping the discussion.
Drafted memo on potential social media opportunities
Reviewed OC Register, Daily Pilot and local news blogs for issues pertinent to Mesa Water; provided recommendations as necessary.
Invoice #8009 April 1 – April 30, 2012), however, is more detailed. It bills $318.00 for Media Relations out of a total bill of $8,842.90 and breaks it down in detail:
Meeting with Stacy at WACO to discuss Surf City Voice: 0.50hrs/$265/hr for $132.00
Researched reporters and contact info for Stacy: 0.70 hrs $265/hr for $185.50
For professional services rendered: 1.20 hrs/total $318.00
Invoice #8027 (June 1 – June 30, 2012) lists $220.00 spent on Media Relations, $132.50 for reviewing a Surf City Voice interview with Paul Shoenberger (here) and $87.00 (at $350/hr) for only reading a commentary by Director Fred Bockmiller published in the OC Register.
The Surf City Voice interview (here) that LPA helped Shoenberger and Taylor prepare for was conducted in January of 2012 and subsequently published in May, 2012, and apparently raised a lot of concern before and after it was published, as a series of emails reveal (see sidebar).
The invoices represent but a fraction of the total $290,141.40 that the district paid LPA for an ongoing contract that ended in December, but they illustrate the type of services provided that, arguably, were unnecessary or could have been provided at far less cost by Mesa’s communications manager, Stacy Taylor, whose $194,000 salary is already relatively high, according to a recent story in the OC Register.
Hourly pay rates charged to Mesa Water by LPA ranged from $265 per hour for work by LPA associate Ben Boyce to $350 for LPA president Laer Pearce. Assuming – only to simplify calculations – that LPA charged the lower rate, LPA did a total of 1095 hours of work or 27 weeks of work at 40 hours per week.
That would come out to a rate of $508,000 per year for the same work that Taylor, who has over 20 years experience as a senior-level communications professional, could do or that her new assistant, Ann Moreno, could do in a salary range between $70,000 to $96,000.
Pearce objects to that comparison. By email, he wrote, “I couldn’t disagree more with your conclusion that there is any validity at all in the way you manipulated our billing rate,” he wrote. “To test it, ask yourself that if we billed someone $500 for a small task, would you say we could have billed them $400,000, based on our billing rate, if it had been a really big task? It illuminates nothing because it’s not based in reality.”
Recent news stories in the Voice of OC, the Register, Daily Pilot and the Surf City Voice, have questioned Mesa Water’s increased cash reserves and public relations spending budget in particular.
Starting Friday, the Surf City Voice will periodically publish LPA’s paid invoices to the Mesa Water District in full as well as other documents related to the Mesa Water District’s Strategic Communications Plan, so that ratepayers and the general public might better determine how their public water agency is being managed.
My story published yesterday (Mesa Water’s Celebration: Misuse of Public Funds?), about Mesa Water’s plan for a private celebration utilizing public money, contained one very important error: it strongly implied that the Mesa Water board had not approved of $49,650 in labor and materials costs for the event.
The implication drawn from that incorrect assertion was that General Manager Paul Shoenberger had exceeded his authority in funding the event. In fact, he was carrying out the orders of the Mesa Water Board of Directors which approved the expenditure of funds for the private celebration at its Nov. 27 board meeting.
My incorrect assertion was based on my interpretation of remarks made by Director Fred Bockmiller in a phone interview and printed in the article. Bockmiller told me that the board had not voted to make the event private and then said “I don’t believe there was ever a vote on it being an event.”
In fact, the event was listed is listed in the official minutes of the Nov. 27 board meeting as a “VIP event” and the board did vote to fund it 3-1-1, with Director James Atkinson voting no and Director Trudy Ohlig-Hall absent.
In my late night rush to finish the story by early morning, I should have slowed down long enough to double check a key element of the story. It was a careless error on my part. I sincerely apologize to the Mesa Board of Directors, to General Manager Paul Shoenberger in particular, and to all my readers.
The other key element of the story—that public funds were used to fund a private event, creating at least the appearance that Mesa Water had broken state law—still stands.