The Growing Ocean Plastic Crisis

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Plastic: cheap, easy to clean, but with a dark, huge hidden cost. Vast amounts of plastic are turning our oceans into a polluted, inhospitable mess, and without strong action by governments and companies, it could get a whole lot worse.

A study released last week by the Ocean Conservancy shows our stark future – if we don’t make drastic changes soon, by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic in them than fish.

The problem may seem big, but actually, just five countries alone are responsible for 60 percent of the plastic in our ocean. They are all large, coastal developing nations in Asia: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

I lived in one of the top plastic polluters, Indonesia, for a year and a half and saw the problem firsthand. Basically, Western-style consumerism entered the country without a corresponding investment in waste management systems. In essence, what you got was Western waste – plastic packaging, wrap and bottles – without any place for Indonesians to put it.

This waste would end up on roadsides, in gutters or clogging canals.

Much of this waste comes from big, global companies. PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Unilever have all flooded developing-country markets with cheap toothpastes, sweets and bottled drinks using cheap plastic packaging, but they have not made any real investment into ensuring that this waste does not end up polluting oceans and waterways. The reason is simple: It would limit their market if they could only sell where recycling systems existed, and they are not responsible, in the current economic system, for what consumers do with the said plastic packaging.

That being said, some companies are working with NGOs to make a difference. For example, Dow Packaging:

“We’re committed to working toward a future of a plastic-free ocean,” said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director at Dow Packaging, in a statement with the Ocean Conservancy. “Companies don’t make plastic with the intent of it ending up in the ocean, and we acknowledge the strong role industry must play in order to help eliminate ocean plastic waste by 2035.”

There are also examples of positive ground-action, even in Indonesia. The country’s second largest city, Surabaya, led by popular female Mayor Tri Rismaharini, has decided to tackle its waste problem head-on through an innovative waste management system that brings together government, private companies and the community.

Globally, we need to change our paradigm. The move by the United States to ban plastic beads is a step in the right direction. Plastic shouldn’t be so cheap – the externalities make it far more costly to society than biodegradable or reusable packing. Companies need to step up and ensure that their packaging doesn’t end up in oceans. Otherwise, our oceans may become one giant sea of plastic – and that isn’t good for anyone.

Image credit: Steven Guerrisi via Flick

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.