The estimated amount of waste that reaches the ocean each year is over eight million tons – the equivalent of five shopping bags of waste on each foot of our collective 217,000 mile global ocean coastline. A large proportion of this waste is plastic and it’s been suggested that there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 – or even earlier if we don’t slow down current rates of illegal and overfishing.
Plastic is an integral part of so many of today’s products and services, much being used for single-use items and packaging. This, coupled with the global lack of infrastructure for recovering and recycling complex plastic materials, makes it easy to understand that plastic pollution is now becoming such a topical and important issue.
Plastic pollution impacts our health, water, tourism, fishing and overall ecosystem, with $13bn spent annually on the plastic pollutants in the ocean. The qualities of plastic are also its liabilities – durability, light weight and persistence – and unlike carbon dioxide (which is hard for people to associate visually with their daily lives) virtually all plastic pollution has touched someone’s hand before it became waste.
Education alone won’t be able to solve the problem, but it will highlight to many that much of the problem is solvable and the solutions within our reach. Removing plastic and waste from our waters and communities will bring benefits like those the ‘Broken Windows Theory’ advocates – that a clean environment will create social pride and self-regulation. But in communities and environments which are already dirty and polluted, it’s proving hard for communities to trust or ‘buy-into’ a system of proper recycling and waste disposal.
This is made increasingly difficult since recycling infrastructure doesn’t exist at the basic level – people all over the globe are simply trying to survive day-to-day, and when a river, creek or ditch is the most convenient location for community waste removal, ‘flushing’ waste away is, unsurprisingly, the go-to approach.
There are three main sectors that need to be part of the solution to recover plastic at great volume and all need to work together – they include the corporate sector, government and community. If just one of these groups doesn’t fulfill its role in the tri-party scenario, the solutions will fail.
This presents a significant challenge to our diverse set of communities and cultures, but it also represents opportunity for job creation, improved brand value, community betterment, resource efficiency and a revolution in materials, recycled content and the repositioning of plastic as a resource.
For the corporate world one of the first steps toward better waste management is to understand their plastic baseline and waste profile. This can be done via the Plastic Disclosure Project – they help to pinpoint where efficiencies can be captured.
The Global Alert platform allows for geotagging of locations which need help for cleanup, prevention and betterment – this to help fix the ‘broken windows.’ As community members become empowered and engaged in reporting local trash hotspots awareness about plastic in waterways will increase.A focus on localised solutions will help create the momentum companies and government need in order to facilitate their use of ‘carrots and sticks’ – either or both are absolutely needed in order to effectively address the growing phenomenon of plastic in our ecosystem.
Governments and companies have a significant role to play in the plastic clean-up, with tasks including the better provision of waste collection and sorting infrastructure, updated policies, incentive programs, and sustainable procurement guidelines. Communities need basic support, infrastructure and standardised rules for sorting and waste collection, along with sufficient equipment (often not high-tech), so that they can move up the value-chain of resource recovery, creating sustainable economic drivers that encourage tackling the challenge of plastic recovery.
Companies should consider all of the positive externalities that will be created when they make decisions on improved packaging, content or material, even if the initial costs seem higher. The positive pay-backs to the customers and communities they serve are often not taken into account – and this is a mistake.
Though the net benefit analysis of making good environmental decisions is often not quantified, a new study related to scaling sustainable plastic use by Trucost and Ocean Recovery Alliance, shows that duplication of positive changes across industries can make large scale impacts to the global community to the tune of over US$3.2bn/year. Companies can improve their brand reputation, engagement with consumers and increase sales with innovative bring-back programs while also leveraging large opportunities that exist with the use of reverse-supply chains.
There is no natural enemy for trash and unlike climate change related events, which impact certain locations at certain times, waste impacts billions of people on a daily basis and its right under our noses.
If we can collectively break the mindset of ‘dispose, remove, and forget,’ we would be able to create millions of global jobs related to a mindset of ‘capture, harness and re-purpose.’
With constrained resources or growing environmental externalities, solving our plastic waste footprint is one of the triggers that will move our population into a new, positive environmental direction. The ocean will be the benefactor and as a result we will remove the plastic and waste that is currently flowing through our global waterways, towards our heart – the sea.
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