Cheap, versatile, and convenient, plastic is all around us in our modern society. It comes, however, with an alarming reality: plastic is present in our oceans in the form of forgotten waste. Coming from household or commercial waste that is poorly collected, or abandoned in the wild or on the roadside, plastic litter (mainly large amounts of plastic packaging) is pushed by rain or wind and ends up in rivers that become conduits of trash.
Then, due to wave abrasion and solar radiation, plastic debris breaks into smaller and smaller pieces to finally become “microplastics”. Theses are particles that are smaller than 5 millimeters and can be different in shape, size and type.
Plastic pollution, in our landfills or oceans, is a concerning and growing problem, one we cannot overlook anymore. While recycling and waste management have improved over the years, we need to focus on reducing our plastic consumption and reusing it.
There is a possibility to take immediate, ambitious, and concerted actions. Adopting systemwide changes will offer social, economic, and environmental benefits. But to see an impactful and long-term change, all stakeholders must take action. From citizens to companies, public administration and lawmakers, investors, the list goes on.
Why does plastic pollution in the oceans matter?
Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastics waste every year and plastic waste is entering the ocean at a rate of about 11 million metric tons a year. It is harming marine organisms and damaging habitats. The entire marine ecosystem is at risk.
More than 800 species are already known to be affected by marine plastic pollution. Some of the consequences are, for example:
- Animals trapped in drift nets or large debris;
- Ingestion, which then affects the entire food chain of the ecosystem;
- Transportation and proliferation of invasive species;
- Chemical pollution to the animal that ingested or in the environment when plastic breaks up.
One striking illustration is ocean garbage patches. These are an accumulation of floating plastic waste (including fishing nets) and microplastics getting caught in a vortex of gyres and slowly drifting away. One of the major oceanic plastic pollution hotspots is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” which is continuously accumulating waste (Click here to learn more on the topic). With various sizes, there are several oceanic accumulation areas all over the globe.
It also harms human health. Neighbouring communities are heavily impacted by material extraction and production, and individuals are affected by the chemicals used in food packaging and mismanaged waste.
Not taking action will results in three times more leakage into the ocean in 2040. If we keep acting like we do, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
Let’s explore some actions to prevent this doom scenario from happening.
How can consumers act to reduce plastic pollution?
The 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - became a motto in the mid-1970s as we became more aware of human impact on the environment. Considering the effectiveness of each action, the 3Rs should always be in a specific order. Recycling is on everyone’s mind, but it is actually the two first Rs we should focus on.
We must reform the way we live:
Reducing the consumption of single-use plastic needs be a priority. As it is not biodegradable, it breaks apart into really small pieces, the microplastics. From the food we eat to the oceans we swim in, they are found everywhere.
If we want to keep plastics and microplastics out of our landfills and oceans we have to change the way we consume and adopt sustainable and reusable alternatives. Reusable coffee cups, water bottles, solid shampooing, bamboo toothbrush, or soap… are just a few examples of more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Plastic is a material so widely used that it might sometimes seem difficult to avoid. When you don’t need or use an item anymore, instead of throwing it away, think about donating or reselling it. You can even consider upcycling: the process by which products are modified and given a second life. Some solution-based companies are actually already going in that direction, to give plastic waste a second chance.
Recycling is a last resort. Only 9% of all the plastic produced has been recycled (79% has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment). On top of that, it can only be recycled a limited number of times before it is chemically impossible to continue. Besides, not all plastics are recyclable and guidelines on recycling are different depending on where you are.
From a consumer perspective, we all have to make sure that we sort out and recycle correctly as mixing can cause contamination leading recyclable materials in our landfills and oceans.
4- The others Rs
The 3Rs are only a beginning when talking about considering the environment and plastic pollution. Rethink, Refuse (mainly over packaging), Repurpose & Repair are other ways you can act as an individual. You can also donate to foundations such as the Ocean Cleanup or The Plastic Soup foundation amongst others. Another option is to do local beach cleanups. They don't eliminate the cause of plastic and trash, however, it increases awareness and education.
How can we dive deeper and adopt a global approach towards preventing oceans pollution?
The Pew Charitable Trusts has published a full report on “Breaking the plastic waste”. They present a “System Change Scenario”: an ambitious modeling effort to understand how plastic production, use, and disposal contribute to this issue and how to tackle it. Some of the key findings and learnings are as follows:
An integrated approach with upstream (pre-consumer) and downstream (post-consumer) solutions are required to efficiently reduce leakage in the oceans. Upstream solutions are, for example, material redesign, reduction and substitution, whereas downstream solutions include recycling, disposal and waste management.
As of right now, the biggest challenges are not a lack of technical knowledge and know-how but rather an inadequacy in regulatory frameworks and business models. Consequential innovation will be needed across the plastic value chain.
Government policies and consumer goods companies’ leadership hold a crucial role in promoting upstream initiatives. If actions are already in place, the scope is often too narrow or doesn’t concern the countries that have the most impact. Depending on the income of each country, the priorities of the implementation would differ to adapt to the existing realities.
Reducing plastic pollution offers environmental, economic, and social benefits but also provides net saving opportunities. A shift of investment is still waiting to happen into:
- New delivery models;
- Better design;
- Plastic substitutes;
- Recycling and sorting facilities;
- Collection infrastructure;
- And supply chain management systems.
A new circular plastics economy offers major opportunities for companies generate revenue rather than the extraction and conversion of fossil fuels.
The “System change scenario”, aiming to tackle plastic leakage in the ocean, contributes to many of the Sustainable Development Goals elaborated by the United Nations in 2015 (learn more on the SDGs). It would not only benefit the environment and climate but also human health, job creation and working conditions improvement.
Realizing that the current international legal frameworks on plastic pollution are ineffective, some key stakeholders have also asked for a United Nations treaty on plastic pollution to create an internationally binding agreement and activate industry scale change.
As a company, it is possible to start making a difference. Make sure to implement good practices, advocate them to employees and put in place an efficient waste management strategy.
Conclusion: acting now for the preservation of our oceans
Pollution of ecosystems by plastics is a highly complex issue. Coordinated global action is needed to act on different levels and create a more sustainable and circular economy.
Our modern society has to rethink the linear model and the way that plastics are designed, used, and reused. This systemic shift needs to be rooted in creating a conversation and collaboration across the value-chain, committing to a common vision and setting targets, innovating to redefine the possible, engaging stakeholders. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is dedicating a part of its activities to creating a new plastic economy so that it never becomes a waste (learn more about the work they do).
A world of (near) zero plastic leakage in the ocean is possible, with global and immediate action from governments, businesses, innovators, and citizens. It is critical to understand the different initiatives and their implication on all aspects (economic, environmental, social) to make amends.
To sum up, reducing plastic pollution in the ocean will require:
- Reduction of plastic use ;
- Increase rate of reuse ;
- Acceleration of innovation in the plastic value chain and finding substitutes ;
- Improving recycling ;
- Expanding waste collection with safe disposal systems ;
- Prevention of plastic leakage in the disposal facilities.
Furthermore, while plastic pollution in the marine ecosystem is an issue the public is increasingly aware of, it should not be a distraction from other serious environemental issues like climate change or biodiversity loss.
The “out of sight, out of mind” attitude cannot prevail anymore. The time to act is now!
Resources on the topic:
- The explicit report “Breaking the plastic Wave” by the Pew Charitable trusts: access full report
- A video from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: https://youtu.be/aTcMPy6L88E
- United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) interactive website: https://www.unep.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/
- Many documentaries and videos are also available on the topic.