Blog by Max Glasser
The theme running through the Journey of Plastic is the seriousness and scale of the ocean plastic problem. We are producing a material - at an ever-growing rate - that may never degrade, that pollutes the whole ocean ecosystem (see Why is plastic pollution an environmental problem?) and that has various impacts on the natural environment (see What are the effects of plastic in the natural environment?). Once we understand the urgency of this problem, this naturally leads us to think - is there anything that can be done to solve it?
While one of the most effective (yet highly unlikely) solutions to this question would be to ban single-use plastic globally and instead replace them with products of a natural decaying lifetime (e.g., paper, metals, wood and glass), I believe there are two other important solutions that don’t receive enough attention.
(1) Cleaning up the Ocean
It estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean in a single year (Jambeck et al., 2015) (see How much plastic is there in the ocean?). Once in the ocean, this plastic is transported to the major ocean gyres (see Where does plastic go once in the ocean?). Removing plastic from ocean gyres is incredibly difficult because plastic pollution is an international problem - no single government wishes to take responsibility for clean-up. For this reason, non-governmental organizations are heavily involved in the removal of plastic from the oceans.
One such example is The Ocean Cleanup foundation that aims to remove 90% of ocean plastic pollution using advanced engineering solutions. Their initial strategy was to clean up plastic directly from the North Pacific gyre. This strategy was critiqued by oceanographers who argued that alternative clean-up sites would be more effective and emphasized the difficulty in cleaning up gyres which are millions of square kilometers in size and disperse plastic in all directions. Therefore, the Ocean Cleanup foundation has now turned its efforts to intercepting river plastics before they reach the ocean. This strategy of source reduction is arguably more effective.
While such organizations are prone to teething problems, supporting their quest to remove plastic from the oceans is an important first step in undoing the damage already done. Especially, as governments are unwilling to support the cause.
(2) Supporting developing countries
The second solution is to support the waste management strategies of developing countries. As noted in How does plastic get into the ocean from land?, mismanaged plastic waste is any plastic that has either been littered or inadequately disposed and therefore has the potential to enter the oceans. The amount of mismanaged plastic waste produced is variable by country.
This can be explained by differences in waste management strategies. For example, while high-income countries have greater plastic demand per capita, robust waste management strategies are generally in place due to their strong technical, environmental, economic, socio-cultural and institutional measures. These strong waste management strategies prevent plastic from reaching the ocean. However, such measures are often lacking in developing countries. Consequently, China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka account for 28%, 10% and 5% of all global mismanaged plastic waste, respectively. These differences help explain the amount of plastic found in each gyre (see Where does plastic go once in the ocean?).
Therefore, to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean requires high-income countries to support low- and middle-income countries in developing stronger waste management strategies. Some authors suggest this may even be a by-product of development.
Together these solutions highlight the forgotten - ocean plastic pollution is a global problem requiring a global response. Let’s move the conversation on plastic pollution beyond individual decisions and instead towards international cooperation and discussion. Such a conversation is more akin to the scale of the problem.
Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash