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Marine litter: Let’s stay focused on solutions

Earlier this week I had the privilege of speaking at the German Mission during the United Nations’ “The Oceans Conference.” The conference was designed to advance implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 to conserve and sustainably use our oceans, seas, and marine resources. And this obviously includes our shared goal of keeping plastics out of the oceans.

My remarks began with a point on which experts agree: to stem the flow of plastics into the ocean, we must urgently start collecting and recycling municipal solid waste, with a focus on countries with expanding populations where such systems are not yet in place. And for now means much of the Asia-Pacific region.

Our Ocean

The plastics industry has been – and remains – committed to finding and implementing effective solutions to this very real problem. In 2011 we brought together plastics associations from around the globe under a Global Declaration reflecting specific actions taken to prevent marine litter solutions. The Declaration now has 70 signatories and we’ve implemented 260 projects in 35 countries to work on keeping plastics out of the oceans.

We are also working with leaders in the Asia-Pacific region, where ocean plastic inputs are the highest, to catalyze investment in municipal solid waste collection and recycling programs. And we are working with the U.N. to provide technical expertise and a range of commitments under the Global Partnership on Marine Litter.

So with so much momentum on solutions we were surprised that this week the U.N.’s “big idea” did not focus on building support for financing waste management, or on deploying innovative recycling and energy recovery. Instead, it encouraged citizens to call for bans on plastic bags and other “single use” plastics.

That’s a shame. Focusing on just a small part of the overall waste stream doesn’t begin to address the problem. And, it gives politicians a “pass” on the much harder parts. And worst of all, it probably makes matters worse for the ocean. How?

A 2016 study conducted by Trucost, the same firm that conducted a similar study for the U.N. in 2014, found that using materials other than plastics for packaging and consumer goods could have harmful, unintended effects on our environment. The study showed the environmental costs of using plastics in packaging and consumer goods is nearly four times less than they would be if plastics were replaced with alternative materials. Environmental costs include more food and packaging waste, more fuel used in transportation, more litter, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. If we generate more waste, more litter and have higher GHG emissions because we use less plastic, are we helping to create a more sustainable world?

We applaud the U.N. for making ocean health a priority. But solving this issue will require us to look past token acts, to aim high, and to commit to lasting solutions—namely the urgent need for expanded waste management infrastructure.

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