How to Stop Plastic Pollution in the Ocean?
If we want to reduce or stop the amount of plastic entering the oceans, what can we do?
There are multiple levels at which we can answer this question: there are things we can do as individuals, innovators, corporations, and in policy-making and financing.
Cut out non-essential plastics where possible. As described in an earlier question, plastic can play a crucial role in many aspects: it is essential to preserving food quality, safety and shelf-life thereby preventing food wastage, for example. We must therefore be careful in cutting out plastics completely (this could lead to negative environmental consequences elsewhere). But if there are areas where you can reduce plastic usage which knock-on negative impacts, this is a good place to start.
If you can replace single-use plastics with long-term, sustainable alternatives then substitute. To make this worthwhile across other environmental metrics (e.g. energy use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions), you often need to use them many times over a significant period of time. If you continually purchase alternatives to single-use plastic bags, for example, you’re probably increasing your environmental impact in other ways.
In most cases, recycling plastic is better than incineration or landfill. Therefore recycle whenever possible. However, it’s important to note that recycling is not a holy grail to the plastic challenge. Most plastics are recycled only once or a few times before also ending up in landfill or incineration. The notion that recycled plastic has no impact (and can therefore be used indefinitely) is a misconception.
Look at your local recycling guidelines to make sure you know what can and can’t be recycled in your area. Avoid putting plastics in recycling which cannot be handled properly. If in doubt, you’re better to put it in landfill than risk contaminating the whole recycling load (if recycling loads have significant levels of contamination they be judged to be non-economic to sort and therefore sent straight to landfill).
In high-income countries (typically with good waste management systems), plastics at risk of entering the ocean arise from littering and dumping of waste by the public. It really shouldn’t have to be said: don’t litter or abandon your waste, and call out anyone who does. Through collective action, zero tolerance can become a societal norm.
As individuals we can be limited in the magnitude of our impact. The above changes can make a contribution, but as the late David MacKay noted: “If we all do a little, we’ll only achieve a little”. As we quantified in our main Plastic Pollution entry, even if all countries across Europe and North America cut out plastic use completely, global mismanaged plastic would decline by less than five percent. To drive urgent and large-scale change, arguably our most important role lies in putting pressure on governments and policy-makers to collaborate globally (see below).
Governments and policy-makers:
It has been a historic trend that some high-income countries have exported some of their recyclable plastics elsewhere. This has often been to mid- and low-income countries where poor waste management infrastructure has led to high levels of mismanaged waste (see the statistics and discussion on this in our Plastic Pollution entry). This exported waste is therefore at risk of entering the ocean. High-income countries should manage all of their waste appropriately and avoid such transfers to countries which higher risk of poor management.
Some have proposed that if trade of recycled plastics was maintained, mid- or low-income countries should tax the plastics they accept. These taxes should be used to expand and improve waste management infrastructure.
An estimated 20 percent of ocean plastic pollution results from the fishing industry. However, in particular regions — for example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — fishing activity is estimated to generate more than half of plastic pollution. Implementing and monitoring of strict regulations on the prevention of waste from fishing activity is important not only at national levels but through regional and global cooperation.
The majority of plastic enters the ocean as a result of inadequate waste management; open landfills and dumps can’t effectively prevent plastics from being lost to the environment. Improving waste management infrastructure – particularly across industrializing countries – is critical and urgent if we are to prevent and reduce plastics entering the ocean. As a general sense of magnitude: if all countries had the management infrastructure of high-income countries (i.e. no mismanaged waste with the exception of littering), global plastics at risk of entering the ocean could decline by more than 80 percent.
Global cooperation to upscale waste management is therefore crucial. Such solutions are not new or innovative: they have already been implemented successfully across many countries. Note that this is not a case of finger-pointing or blame: rich countries too have benefited from the rapid industrialization (a rate at which waste management could not keep up) of others. This is a global system we have collective responsibility for.
Middle- and low-income countries where plastics are poorly managed have an obvious role and responsibility. But if high-income countries are truly serious about addressing the ocean plastic issue, the most impactful way to contribute is to invest in the improvement of waste management infrastructure practices across the world. Without such investment and cooperation we will not be able to reduce the quantity of plastic entering the ocean. We are still currently on a trend of rapidly increasing plastic waste: to stabilise, let alone reduce, will require large-impact solutions.
Innovation and industry:
Effective management of waste we produce is an essential and urgent demand if we are to prevent plastic entering the ocean. As noted above, this is a solution we know how to achieve: many countries have low levels of mismanaged waste. This is important, regardless of how successful we are in reducing plastic usage.
However, reducing demand for new plastic production is also crucially important. Whilst recycled plastic is usually favourable to primary plastics, it is not a long-term solution: most recycled plastics still end up in landfill or incineration after one or two cycles. For recycling to be sustainable over the long-term, innovations which would allow for continuous recycling would have to be developed. As noted in another question, there has been promising progress in recent years in the development of polymer materials which can be chemically recycled back to their initial raw materials. However, they are currently expensive and unfavourable in terms of energy inputs.
The economic viability and environmental trade-offs will be critical components to the development of not only recyclable materials but other alternatives. Plastic is so widely used because it is cheap, versatile, and requires relatively little energy, water and land to produce. To achieve wide uptake of alternatives across countries of all income levels, breakthrough alternatives will have to be economically competitive with current methods. Functionality, price and scalability of innovations are key to addressing this challenge.
Nara Loca Abadi is a recycled plastic specialist that concerned about the earth and environment by promoting the use of recycled PET flakes, recycled PET chips, recycled PP & HDPE granules to various plastic and polyester manufacturers.