Resolving sea plastic contamination will certainly not be very easy, however we have no selection
Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. This is definitely the case when it comes to reducing the flow of plastic into the ocean, a current that harms marine life and harms habitats – with a huge impact on billions of people who depend on a healthy marine environment.
Earlier this week, on Monday September 28, heads of state from 64 countries signed a pledge from leaders for nature, in which they pledge to work together to set ecosystems – land, sea and freshwater – on a path towards it Bringing sustainability and 10 urgent actions to be taken, which included “Eliminate plastic leaks in the ocean by 2050”.
Two days later, at the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, heads of state and other government representatives gathered on the subject of “Urgent Biodiversity Measures for Sustainable Development”. Leaders reaffirmed the need to make changes in eight key areas, including towards “sustainable fisheries and oceans” – which will necessarily include reducing sources of plastic waste in order to achieve targeted levels of marine conservation and restoration.
The two events mean that a group of leaders are committed to transformative change in our land and ocean – and to take collective action on major international events in the months and years to come. In order to work on reducing the annual plastic flows to the ocean and achieving the target for 2050, those responsible can fall back on a current model analysis and a report by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ “Breaking the Plastic Wave”, the technical basis of which has been published in a peer-reviewed article in Science.
The report warns that unless governments, industry and others act, the amount of plastic entering the ocean will nearly triple from 11 million to 29 million tons per year by 2040. However, decisive and immediate action could significantly reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean and help restore the ocean’s health and balance. Indeed, Breaking the Plastic Wave found that the volume of plastic pollution that enters the ocean from land each year can be reduced by more than 80% within a generation with existing technologies and approaches.
This requires both upstream (production and design) and downstream (use and recycling) changes in the life cycle of plastics. And these efforts must be used together, with government and industry each contributing.
Some efforts are underway: In recent years, some governments and industry leaders have taken action and voluntary initiatives, from banning plastic bags to opting out of the use of plastic straws. These commitments alone would likely only reduce the annual flow of plastic pollution by 7% by 2040.
The Pew-SYSTEMIQ analysis found that an 80% reduction begins with eliminating avoidable plastic use and implementing refill systems and new dispensing models – measures that would result in a nearly 33% decrease in waste generation. At the same time – and where sustainable – manufacturers have to switch to alternative materials such as paper and compostable substances in order to avoid one sixth of the projected generation of plastic waste.
The analysis also found that manufacturers and governments should ensure that products and packaging are designed for recycling. This step could more than double the proportion of economically recyclable plastic. This change would benefit recyclers and improve the livelihoods of more than 11 million garbage collectors worldwide who were responsible for approximately 60% of global plastics recycling in 2016 – the year we used as a base. In addition, governments need to double mechanical recycling capacity – with middle- and low-income countries increasing their waste collection rates – and restrict exports of plastic waste unless the exported waste can be recycled effectively and in safe working conditions.
Finally, action is needed – including new regulations and system-wide innovation – to tackle the flow of major sources of microplastic pollution such as tires, pellets, textiles and personal care products into the ocean.
That’s all a lot to ask. But it pales in comparison to the many benefits we get from a healthy ocean: sustainable food sources, jobs for millions of people, clean air, carbon uptake for the planet, and productive ecosystems from coasts to high seas. This week’s announcements signaled the intention; Now the action must begin.
Simon Reddy leads the international environmental initiatives of the Pew Charitable Trusts.