This Earth Day will bring a variety of enthusiastic calls for cleaner oceans. Plastics makers share and welcome that enthusiasm, because no one wants oceans full of plastics. And to effectively turn awareness into meaningful results, it’s worth being clear about how plastics are getting where they shouldn’t be.
Where do ocean plastics come from?
Although some of the plastic currently in the ocean is from lost or abandoned nets and fishing gear, experts have found that most comes from poorly managed municipal solid waste on land. Of that, more than 50% comes from a small number of rapidly developing economies that have yet to invest in systems to collect and manage that waste.
The use of plastics in emerging economies is a sign of a growing middle class with increased access to fresh foods, personal care products, connectivity, transportation systems, and employment. Unfortunately, in many regions, growing demand for consumer goods has outpaced the infrastructure needed to manage used materials of all kinds. And without an infrastructure to collect and manage municipal solid waste, an endless stream of debris winds up in rivers and open dumpsites that eventually feed into our oceans.
How can we keep plastics out of the marine environment?
In 2015 Ocean Conservancy published a report (Stemming the Tide) that explored the most effective interventions that could be applied to prevent plastic from polluting our oceans. That report recommended implementing optimized systems to collect, sort and treat the various waste components (i.e., compost, recycle and/or recover the materials). This report is an important milestone because if we want to make a difference quickly, we need to start where the problem is occurring.
Stemming the Tide also pointed out that value capture is important. If trash has value, then it will be collected. And to give it value, we need to develop waste management infrastructure that separates and captures the constituent materials so they can be turned into valuable products. Mechanical recycling is available for many plastics, and an ever wider number of products are being designed for recycling.
Still, there remain valuable consumer products and packaging for which mechanical recycling is not yet available. Fortunately, one exciting new innovation is a form of recycling that breaks down plastics into their basic molecules. This family of technologies can produce a variety of outputs, including raw materials for new plastics, basic chemicals for manufacturing, transportation fuels, waxes, and lubricants.
Another area of research has demonstrated that automated sorting technologies in use today can be optimized to capture flexible plastic packaging, including multi-material pouches. This promising area of research could lead to the creation of a new stream of recovered materials (e.g., multi-layer packaging) while helping to reduce contamination in other streams. And other promising developments, such as solvents, additives and compatibilizers, could yield additional options for processing and reusing mixed plastics. All of these options have enormous potential for advancing a more circular economy.
Can’t we just ban plastics?
Plastics have improved virtually every aspect of how we live—from everyday safety and convenience to advanced healthcare, technology, and even sustainability. Because plastics are strong, lightweight and cost-effective—they allow us to do more with less, which significantly reduces our environmental footprint. For example, plastics allow us to: package more fresh food with less packaging, drive further on a gallon of gas; heat and cool our homes for less, expand access to critical safety devices and personal care items… and much, much more.
And while plastics clearly don’t belong in our oceans, studies show banning them would do more harm than good. A 2016 study by the firm Trucost found that replacing plastics in packaging and consumer products could raise environmental costs nearly fourfold. Another study showed that replacing plastic packaging with other materials would increase the amount of packaging generated in the United States by 55 million tons annually and increase energy use and carbon emissions by 82 percent and 130 percent, respectively. So, eliminating plastics clearly won’t benefit our planet.
But if we stop using single-use plastics, they won’t pollute our oceans, right?
As a society we can—and should—do more to reduce waste. That includes designing recyclable products, recycling whatever we can, not taking straws or carryout utensils when we don’t need them, and bringing a reusable cup or bag when we can. Yet some have called for bans on “single-use plastics,” i.e., items designed to be used once or only for a short time. But in many cases, single use plastics give us sanitary conditions for food, beverages and medical applications. And, while bans on particular products might feel like a quick fix, we can’t simply enact bans in every country for every item that might find its way to the ocean. And without increased access to waste management infrastructure, there would just be different waste—and in all likelihood a lot more of it—piling up in rivers and dumpsites.
What Are Companies that Make and Use Plastics Doing to Prevent Pollution?
Many companies across the private sector are working together and partnering with governments and nonprofits to help prevent trash from leaking into the ocean. Much of this work is aligned internationally and focused on providing waste management infrastructure in countries where the most plastics leakage is occurring.
We’ve learned that one of the most important ways we can contribute is to partner with organizations that offer critical expertise in ocean sciences and conservation, investment and infrastructure development. For example, ACC and the World Plastics Council are members of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance®, which is working on cross-sector innovations to prevent trash from reaching waterways.
And plastics and consumer goods companies are among major brands working with the Closed Loop Partners to help launch a new fund (called Closed Loop Ocean (CLO)) that will provide a financing model for waste management. CLO is seeking funding commitments totaling $150 million to help finance technologies and infrastructure that advance the recovery and circularity of materials in countries with high levels of ocean bound waste. Plans call for funding projects—including a not-for-profit project incubator capability—as early as next year.
And we are tracking the ways in which our industry is contributing to cleaner oceans. In 2011, ACC initiated a Global Declaration aimed at organizing our collective efforts. Today, 75 associations from 40 countries have signed the Global Declaration, and are publicly reporting projects in six areas: education, research, public policy, sharing best practices, plastics recycling/recovery, and plastic pellet containment. The number of projects reported by declaration signatories has grown to 355, more than tripling since inception.
We know ocean pollution is a huge problem, and know there’s much more to be done. But this problem is solvable, if we stay focused on capturing and transforming municipal solid waste at its source.