The current news and statistics about plastics in our ocean are, in a simple word, depressing. Innovations working to reduce ocean-bound plastics are just some of the stories that can give us hope for the future of our environment.
When it comes to climate change, waste reduction, conservation, and green living, plenty of people and groups are working hard to make a difference. First, let's consider why we need innovation, on a large scale, to combat the issue of plastics in our oceans.
Ocean-bound plastics are plastics – both post-industry and post-consumer – that will ultimately end up in the ocean. Around 8 million metric tons of plastic trash are entering our ocean every year, and we are facing the prospect of 250 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean by 20251.
Beach cleanups can help. But these alone are not enough. Tackling the immense problem of ocean-bound plastics will take a concerted effort. From individuals, communities, businesses, and governments. We can find plastic waste sources throughout all parts of supply chains and life cycles
The great news is that there are plenty of measures in place already, from zero-waste individuals and communities to responsible businesses and organizations doing great work to keep our oceans clean.
If you are already taking steps to move towards a zero-waste lifestyle, you yourself are part of the solution. We can all take small steps to help solve ocean-bound plastics and keep the world's marine environments safe and clean.
But where you live will have a large bearing on how easy it is to make a difference. Much of plastics enter the oceans from developing nations whose waste management practices have not kept up with the rise of consumerism2.
People can rely more on waste management and recycling systems in the more developed nations. But we have to remember that these systems are far from perfect, which is why it is so important to reduce waste wherever and however we can. We can also help by choosing products made from reused ocean-bound plastics.
Many groups are doing great work, from Sky's campaign to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economic Global Commitment. This involves increasing understanding of the issues of ocean-bound plastic. Groups like the Oceanic Society, Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, and Plastic Soup Foundation all play important roles.
Trash Free Seas Alliance, with Ocean Conservancy, has created the Plastic Policies Playbook. In this document, they identified four key strategies to solve the problem of ocean plastic:
Long term, it is clear that we need to look at global and systemic strategies to combat the rising tide of plastic waste before it enters the ocean.
Of course, zero-waste policies and a reduction in plastic use in the first place are key. No matter how effectively we can redirect and reuse plastics bound for the oceans, we need to think about the 4rs in order, reducing before we think about reuse and recycling.
That is why great alternatives to single-use plastic items are innovations that can reduce ocean-bound plastics. The less single-use plastic we use globally, the better. Reusable bottles and mugs, bags, and cutlery can all make a difference. We also need to make sure that we hold producers of problematic plastic products to account.
But in addition to reducing plastic use and plastic production in the first place, we also have to think about how we can reuse the ocean-bound plastic that is already out there. Big business and other organizations can play their role in stopping plastic long before it enters the ocean and cycling it back into manufacture to create circular models. We can reclaim ocean-bound plastic and return it to the system. Here are some of the innovations that are enabling this circular model of waste management and production:
Ocean Conservancy founded the Trash Free Seas Alliance® in 2011. It unites leaders from industry, conservation, and academia to create pragmatic, real-world solutions to combat the problem of marine debris. Building upon the growing body of science on plastic marine debris, the Alliance aims to reduce the amount of plastic waste leaking into the ocean annually by 50% by 2025.
The Alliance and other initiatives with which the Ocean Conservancy is involved have already made major strides towards reducing ocean-bound plastics – raising funds and finding new solutions to reuse plastic waste before it reaches the oceans.
Envision plastics take materials at risk of becoming ocean pollution and turn them into reliable plastic resin—plastics we can use in place of conventional virgin HDPE. Manufacturers can use it up to 100% in many food contact applications where they currently use HDPE resin. They have committed to removing 10 million pounds of plastic at risk of polluting our oceans.
Any resin sold under Envision Plastics' OceanBound Plastic brand has been collected within 50 kilometers of a coastline or waterway. They collect these plastics from communities that do not have formal waste collection systems.
Closed Loop was founded in 2014 to invest in recycling infrastructure in order to put more recycled materials back into manufacturing supply chains. They partnered with many big businesses to launch a $150 million initiative called Closed Loop Ocean. They also have a newer venture, Circulate Capital, to invest in companies, innovations, and projects that prevent marine plastic waste from originating in Asia.
Next Wave is a consortium of businesses and organizations that are developing the first global network of ocean-bound plastic supply chains. They are 'turning off the tap' on ocean-bound plastics. Next Wave member companies commit to diverting a minimum of 25,000 metric tons of plastic—the equivalent of 1.2 billion single-use plastic water bottles—from entering the ocean by the end of 2025. And in doing so, reducing the environmental harm of plastic water bottles.
Here are some of the initiatives Next Wave companies are engaged in to return ocean-bound plastics to the supply chain:
Luxury travel goods have a series of bags and backpacks made of SHORE-TEX™ fabric. The company makes this fabric from plastic waste collected from beaches and waterways in the Philippines. The company pledges to remove 5 lbs of plastic trash from the ocean for each product purchased. They've already pulled 65,000 lbs of plastic from the ocean since Jan 2019. They'll remove all single-use plastics from their entire supply chain this year.
HP and its partners have successfully built Haiti's ocean-bound plastic supply chain. They use ocean-bound plastics in a range of their products, including the HP ink cartridge, the HP EliteDisplay E273d (the first display monitor using ocean plastics), and the HP Elite Dragonfly uses 50% post-consumer recycled plastic, including 5% ocean-bound plastic.
IKEA is another company in the Next Waves initiative. Their Musselblomma Collection includes a polyester bag, two cushion covers, and a tablecloth made from upcycled marine plastic.
Trek Bicycles has released a mountable water bottle holder now made from ocean-bound nylon from recovered fishing nets from Chile. In partnership with Bureo, this bat cage will remove 44,000 sq ft or 3,850 pounds of fishing nets from the oceans in just one year.
Humanscale's Smart Ocean Chair is from recycled fishing nets in partnership with Bureo. Each chair uses almost 2 lbs of recycled fishing net material once bound for the oceans off Chile.
Dell uses ocean-bound plastic in its newly released XPS13 laptop packaging trays. The trays are 25% ocean-bound plastic and 75% recycled PET, with no virgin material.
Interface Carpet Tiles are made using Nylon from more than 250 tonnes of fishing gear collected in Cameroon, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Since 2012, they've been working with the Zoological Society of London to develop the NetWorks project to collect these nets and turn them into new yarn for the carpet tiles.
Many of the schemes and innovations mentioned above are highly laudable. However, it is worth noting that many of the large corporations involved in ocean-bound plastic reuse schemes have been criticized for ignoring the need to reduce plastic consumption in the first place.
It is important to recognize that while re-diverting plastic waste back into reuse is one part of the puzzle, cutting it off at the source is also vitally important. Both strategies will be important in tackling this complex problem.
|Trash Free Seas Alliance & The Ocean Conservancy (2017). THE NEXT WAVE: Investment Strategies for Plastic Free Seas|
|Oyedele, Olufemi. (2019). Effective plastic management in Developing Nations.|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.