Photo credit: Erwin Zwart / The Ocean Cleanup
The global plastics industry produces over 300 million tons of plastic annually (up from 5 million tons in the 1950s), and the industry continues to grow. Much of this plastic – equivalent to a garbage truck load every minute, according to the World Economic Forum – works its way into the world’s rivers and oceans, and the projections are alarming: it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.
You only need to see images of strangled turtles, and plastic removed from the stomachs of dead whales, to appreciate the damage that plastic is doing to marine wildlife. And people are not immune to the problem, with micro-plastic increasingly working itself through the marine food chain onto our plates.
The issue of marine plastic has been for too long the concern of only environmental activists. For politicians and business, out of sight has meant out of mind. Thankfully, this is now changing, and we may have reached a tipping point in terms of recognising the severity of the problem.
From an inter-governmental perspective, the importance of the issue was recognised in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which set a 30% reduction target for marine litter by 2020; here, some progress is being made. This includes the Joint Communication on the International Ocean Governance, the UN’s CleanSeas campaign and the European Commission’s upcoming Plastics Strategy, set to be launched later this year.
From a corporate perspective, one of the principal concerns with the issue relates to reputation. Clearly, there is a growing concern that the plastic washed-up on beaches and floating in the world’s oceans carries the branding of some of the world’s largest FMCG companies. Whereas other companies recognize that there is reputational mileage to be had from being seen to do the right thing.
The search, led by companies such as Procter & Gamble’s, Adidas, Timberland, Danone, Nestle and Origin Materials, is now on to find innovative solutions that allow us to transition from toxic, disposable plastics to biodegradable, recyclable and reusable materials. But some of the most exciting initiatives are being driven by the non-profit sector.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a long-stranding advocate of the circular economy, has been running a three-year “New Plastics Economy” initiative focused on creating a more sustainable system for plastics. It recently launched an international competition, in conjunction with The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, to identify solutions for keeping plastics out of the ocean.
There is also the The Ocean Cleanup, a ground breaking initiative, which is the brain-child of Dutch innovator Boyan Slat. The mission of The Ocean Cleanup is to help rid the world’s oceans of plastic through the development of a passive system that acts as an artificial coastline. It uses the natural ocean currents to catch and concentrate plastic rubbish before it is extracted, stored and shipped to land for recycling. The original aim was to start installing the first full-scale array in the Great Pacific garbage gyre by 2020. Things have gone so well the deployment date has been recently shifted forwards to 2018, with the objective of removing 50% of the plastic from the gyre within 5 years.
The fact that we seem to be waking up to the problem does not mean that we are close to resolving the issue of plastic in the ocean. But, for the first time, there is a feeling of hope.
Photo credit: Ork de Rooij