James H. Lenhart, P.E., D.WRE, is chief technology officer for Contech Engineered Solutions. Lenhart can be reached at [email protected]
May 21, 2019

Whales and a Matter of Convenience

Whales and a Matter of Convenience

I have been aware of and spoken to the issue of trash and debris in storm water systems for more than 20 years. It does not take long for anyone to see the issue when looking at the level of trash and debris pollution in catch basins or trash capture devices.  

However, recently there seems to be increased messaging in mainstream media on the issue of ocean plastics and the impact on aquatic life. Most recently was a video of a whale necropsy in the Philippines where the researcher pulled 44 KG of plastic from a starved dead whale. He has done this same procedure more than 50 times, most animals dying of the same result. Other videos such as Mr. Trash Wheel and by Ocean Protect on Sydney Harbor provide an inkling of the magnitude of this problem. In many other developing nations, the lack of infrastructure, regulations, and cultural norms result in using canals and drainage ways for garbage disposal. I heard once the definition of a “gully washer” is when a storm big enough to generate enough flow in a ditch to wash all of the garbage away.

After all this time, myself and others are making the connection between storm water runoff and ocean plastics. In fact, the other day, while enjoying a bagel and cream cheese with my coffee, I received the bagel in a bag with a plastic cream cheese container and a plastic knife wrapped in plastic. I realized a bit of “mia culpa” and asked myself why not a wooden knife in a paper wrapper and the bagel on the plate?  And I thought, how are these items disposed of in developing countries without the infrastructure to manage all the waste we produce? As a global society, we need to take action to protect the aquatic environment--and ultimately ourselves.

I am encouraged by the increased frequency of hearing about ocean clean-up organizations, which are a great way to begin to clean up our mess. However, we also must use source control methods, which include regulatory actions to stop the use of some single-use plastics, increased technologies to process and reuse recycled plastics; deployment of trash and debris capture devices in drainage systems; and educational programs to change mindsets about the use of these materials. And lastly, the development of more biodegradable products to replace those single-use products, which we do need.