Cleaning up the oceans seems a Sisyphean task. The statistics on sea plastic pollution are frightening.
The situation is dire. So does anyone have the solution for cleaning up our marine plastic waste and curbing our plastic habit?
In this post, we review the various attempts by individuals, groups and organisations to stem the tide of marine plastic waste. How are grassroot individuals to global organisations attempting to tackle the sea plastic pollution crisis affecting the entire planet?
Beach cleaning initiatives can be found around the world. From the very large NOAA Marine Debris Programme to the very small community group projects. The Ocean Conservancy “Clean Swell” project is attempting to keep a trash database to provide a global overview of the volumes of trash being collected and help motivate others to volunteer to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean.
“Whether we work alone on a deserted beach or with a small group of our friends, we have the knowledge that we are part of a larger congregation. Our statistics join those of others in far off places we may never get to visit.”
Beach clean-ups feel like a never-ending task, but what they are doing is highlighting the major brands and products that are the key polluters and holding them to account.
However, as the plastic in the sea facts to the right show, not all plastics wash up on shore.
Plastic in the sea facts
Current estimates suggest that between 8 and 13 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year
It is forecast that the rate of plastic production will double by 2040.
Research has found that humans consume about 50,000 microplastic particles a year
Birds and marine life are consuming plastics which is affecting their ability to eat and swim, often leading to death.
Plastic is everywhere from the surface to the Mariana trench and the chemical fall-out from plastic may be affecting animals fundamental behaviours
The Ocean Cleanup
The gigantic Ocean Cleanup vessel was lauded as being the cure for cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Still reeling from the Blue Planet effect, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it first hit the world stage. Finally, there was a sea cleaner that could deal with the problem of marine plastic waste.
Dutch inventor and young entrepreneur Boyan Slat believed he has a design which could clean up 50% of ocean waste in 5 years. The design was simple. A combination of floating U-shaped rigs that would simply scoop up the plastic. The short skirts would enable marine life to swim underneath it. However, initial trials failed as the vessel did not go faster than the plastic – so it simply floated away. One of the rigs also broke down in 2018.
Another fundamental flaw is that most of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic are not simply floating on the surface. They are floating below in a plastic soup the size of Texas. A number of scientists have since criticised it for being severely flawed and lacking consideration of its own environmental impact on marine life.
It was widely criticised for diverting attention away from other ocean plastic solutions that looked at trapping waste at source and preventing it from entering the oceans in the first place. The Ocean Cleanup have acknowledged this and have just recently announced an automated collection system called The Interceptor which will be positioned on rivers that are the source of most of the pollution.
So what about the source of our plastic? Who are the biggest contributors and what are they doing?
Ocean plastic sources
Globally, Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé are currently the biggest three marine plastic waste polluters. Beach cleanups and brand audits worldwide have identified their products as the most common ocean plastic sources.
Greenpeace has also identified Danone, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Perfetti van Melle, Mars Incorporated, and Colgate-Palmolive.
In Asia the top polluters were Coca-Cola (Dasani, Ciel, Valle,Fanta, Sprite, Vitamin Water, Georgia, Costa Coffee) , Perfetti van Melle (Mentos, Chupa Chups, Fruit-tella, Smint) and Mondelez International (Cadbury, Oreo, Milka, Trident, Mikado, Belvita, Tang, Philadelphia, Halls).
Having the global finger pointed at them has forced these major companies to take a look at their plastic production.
Coca Cola has said it is aiming for using 50% recycled content by 2030. (That seems small, considering it produced 3m tonnes of plastic a year!) Pepsico and Nestle have set goals of making its packaging into reusable or recyclable by 2025.
Corporate statements, and pledges with distant dates attach still need enforcement and governments have realised they need to incentivise changes in behaviour.
Governments banning plastic
Former President Michelle Bachelet and President Sebastian Piñera and Minister Carolina Schmidt are trailblazing a way for Latin American countries. In August 2018, they banned plastic bags entirely.
“We want to go from a throwaway culture, where everything is used and chucked away, to the healthy culture of recycling. There are 7.6 billion inhabitants in the world. We can’t continue polluting as if each one of us owned the Earth.” (BBC News, 3 August 2018).
And Chile isn’t the only country to have imposed a ban. The UN has counted 127 nations that have now either taxed or banned bags completely.
The European Commision (EC) is also attempting to ban single-use plastic items with the ultimate aim of making all packaging recyclable by 2030.
But, will an all out ban be effective?
There is a worry that all this banning, could just be a case of greenwashing, which is why other individuals want to target those manufacturers and businesses at the start of the plastic production supply chain and create financial incentives and regulations for them.
You’ve probably never heard of him, but the Australian billionaire and his Minderoo Foundation has pledged to put $300 million towards ending plastic waste.
“This existential threat requires a global solution able to transcend borders, politics and corporate responsibility. We have less than five years to make this happen. Only a broadly adopted, international industry-led approach will keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment.” (WA Today, 25 Sept 2019)
Forrest “Sea the Future” campaign is aiming at targeting the source, the 100 resin producers responsible for making plastic resin. His aim is to raise the price of bad/fossil fuel plastics- charging more for virgin plastic. He also plans on developing new recycling methods and remove reliance on fossil fuels. He believes that making plastics a “closed economy” is the key to keeping plastic out of the world’s oceans.
$300 million doesn’t seem enough, but that’s just his own money. He believes he can raise a further $20 billion for the plan.
He is also tackling the systemic cause of poor recycling and waste in South East Asia – mainly poverty. He believes that creating better recycling centres will provide more jobs.
War on Plastic and the Supermarkets
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has attempted through a Televisoin campaign in the UK to declare a War on Plastic and targeted supermarkets as the main contributor.
Pulling out UK waste from piles of waste in Malaysia definitely shocked viewers. And it made the major supermarkets take action. Tesco promised to reduce its plastic and even ban brands that use excessive packaging. Sainsburys and Waitrose are also working on refillable solutions.
Yet as Sainsbury’s rightly points out; making aggressive targets to slash plastics will only be possible with the help of consumers, food manufacturers, packaging firms, the academic community and other supermarkets.
It’s too early to judge the impact of this campaign on marine plastic waste, but it’s sending out the right notes across social media. We’re hoping it will have a similar “Blue Planet” effect.
Ellen McCarthur and the New Plastics Economy
While the action of all these single actors all taking on different parts of the plastic economy only one organisation is systematically challenging the entire system.
English sailor, Ellen MacArthur’s Foundation is working with business, government and academia to challenge the current economic system. The foundation aims to draw together industry stakeholders to create a “circular economy.” What this means is transforming our current economy of design, build, discard, into one where we design for reusability, build with sustainable materials and then reuse. This will create what she calls a “global material flow” and an economy in which “plastics never become waste.”
The foundation has pulled together global plastic reduction initiatives and experts to come up with a robust reuse plan. It appeals to both the heart and the head, but most importantly to the pockets of big business as it demonstrates. The NPE claims using reusable packaging could be worth at least $10bn. Not only that but companies can implement deposit and reward schemes, smart systems, compact products to reduce costs on transportation and customisation of their products.
Big brands have signed up like Keuig Dr Pepper, Tupperware, and Berry Global Inc. Berry Global has 2,500 clients including the major fast food chains, major pharmaceutical makers like Procter & Gamble and American supermarkets (Wal-Mart and KMart). Getting Berry Global on board feels like a major coup as it provides the most container products.
By signing up to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, these brands and companies have to publicly report on their plastic packaging and how much is actually recycled.
The Foundation and the UN Environment are working on signing up all business and all governments. It seems ambitious, but 16 governments have currently signed up and the pressure is now on from all sides.
“Ambition levels must continue to rise to make real strides in addressing global plastic pollution by 2025, and moving from commitment to action is crucial”
To bring about a global shift in our attitude to plastic it is widely agreed that we need a systemic change. One that targets consumers, big business, industry, governments and regulators.
Systemic change is hard. Academically people have struggled to come up with the perfect recipe for eliciting change.
Andrew Forrest and Ellen MacArthur foundation are both promoting evolution of our current system. They are also attempting to change the system by targeting the “right” people. Also key to the change are the individual activists, clean-up initiatives and journalists all helping to communicate a new narrative about how we see and treat the world.
We need a global commitment if we are going to make a difference. However, it will take the big thinkers to drive it all. We for one will be fully supporting everyone attempting to stem the tide of plastic waste, from the small communities looking to clean up their local beach, to
Here at Water Witch, we hope to play our part by providing debris collection and trash retrieval boats to companies and stakeholders around the world. Our range of tried and tested workboats have been developed to offer users a versatile, multi-purpose craft that can perform a wide range of duties in addition to efficient aquatic trash and debris removal.
Fighting sea plastic pollution
Anna Birney from the Forum for the Future and author of Cultivating System Change: A Practitioner’s Companion believes some of the key ingredients include:
Promoting evolution not revolution. Find initiatives, new technology and opportunities
Finding, convening and motivating the right people
Communicating a new narrative around consumption, our relationship to the earth and the ocean
Water Witch partner with waterway management, coastal municipalities, port authorities and tourist resorts to provide peace of mind, deliver efficient management and maintenance of your marine environment that will improve your own sustainability and ensure your visitors keep coming back.
If you need more information about our workboats and innovative solutions for marine debris and waterway cleanup, please contact us.
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