Dutch scientists from The Ocean Cleanup project have successfully collected plastic from the high seas for the first time. Today I was interviewed by TRT World on how to deal with the systemic problem of plastic pollution in the ocean.
Plastic is virtually indestructible; left to itself, it will get infinitely smaller, but never disappear fully. Up to 13m tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean will contain more plastics than fish by weight by 2050.
The impact on marine life – and ultimately human life – is profound: ingestion (with impact on the whole food chain), entanglement as well as spread of bacteria and invasive species (on floating plastics).
Cleanups important, but systemic change required
The Ocean Cleanup project is certainly impressive. The device is able to catch visible pieces of plastic and discarded fishing nets as well as microplastics. It aims to trap many of the 1.8tn items of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch without harming marine life, with the help of satellites and sensors. A support vessel collects waste, and marine biologists on board monitor environmental harm.
Such cleanup efforts are important, but only deal with the symptoms of the plastic waste problem. Upstream factors need to be addressed, especially innovation in new materials, product design and systemic change (with a focus on decoupling waste generation from economic growth).
Structural problems need to be addressed to create a circular economy, which includes investing in better waste management systems. The issue needs to be tackled “from source to sea”. Around 90% of plastic waste in the ocean comes from just ten rivers, eight of which are in Asia.
The transition to a circular economy is happening, but it cannot happen without an appropriate national and international policy environment. An example is the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendment, which encourages innovative solutions to reduce the flow of plastics into the oceans.
Partnerships are crucial too. The Economist Group’s World Ocean Initiative fosters a year-round global conversation on the greatest challenges facing the seas and progress towards building a blue economy. Initiatives specifically focusing on plastic pollution include the Plastic Waste Partnership, which encourages international co-operation and innovation. The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the UNEP, brings key stakeholders together to create a circular economy for plastics.
The importance of individual responsibility
International cooperation, national regulation and industry action are all crucial. Recent milestones include the microbead ban in the UK, preventing companies from producing wash-off cosmetic products containing plastic particles.
Individual responsibility is also important. We all can make an impact by reducing, reusing and recycling waste, including plastics. A focus recently has been on one-use plastic items and packaging, particularly plastic water bottles and one-use cups.
But plastics are here for a reason. Decoupling economic growth from plastic pollution will not be easy. Plastics have many benefits: they protect and preserves food; they save fuel (and thereby reduce greenhouse-gas emissions) by reducing the weight in transportation compared with other materials; they are relatively less expensive than other materials; and they are durable (for example in pipes). That is why plastic pollution is ultimately a systemic issue that requires a combination of individual, societal, economic and political solutions.