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Tina Casey headshot

Will Power is Key to Tackling the Ocean Plastic Crisis

By Tina Casey
Ocean Plastic

As Plastic-Free July draws to a close, the looming ocean plastic crisis is still growing by the day. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A new scientific study indicates that solutions to much of the problem are already at hand. One important missing ingredient is will power, and that is where leading brands have an opportunity to shine.

New study demonstrates pathways for taking on the ocean plastic crisis

First, the good news. Earlier this month, the highly respected journal Science published the results of a two-year, international study titled, “Evaluating scenarios toward z​​ero plastic pollution.”

The study was conducted under the auspices of the Preventing Ocean Plastics Campaign of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Based on a time frame of 2016 to 2040, the first-of-its-kind study modeled five pathways for taking on ocean plastic and other forms of plastic pollution.

“While no silver bullet exists, 78 percent of the plastic pollution problem can be solved by 2040 using current knowledge and technologies and at a lower net cost for waste management systems compared to [business as usual],” the study concluded.

Those findings validate the efforts of business leaders who are working to cut down on plastic waste.

Writing for CNN last week, reporter Helen Regan noted that the five pathways involve the entire supply chain, from reducing single-use plastic in manufacturing to ramping up recycling and reuse.

The study concluded that this combined approach can actually save money for governments. That provides businesses with a bottom-line basis for advocating in support of stronger policies that cut down on plastic waste.

How “invisible” workers can make a difference on ocean plastic

One particularly interesting result of the study points to a solution that provides decent jobs for underserved communities around the globe.

The study outlined several significant shortcomings in the global waste management infrastructure, including recycling capacity, landfills and incinerators. The most important bottleneck, though, is in collection services.

Study co-author Dr. Winnie Lau told CNN that “billions of people” lack formal collection services.

To a great extent, that gap is being filled by networks of freelance waste-pickers who labor under unsafe, unhealthy and unstable conditions.

By organizing waste-pickers into a respected economic and environmental force, the collection rate could be increased significantly while improving community well-being.

A movement in that direction is already taking shape, as illustrated by the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

For businesses seeking ways to make a significant impact on ocean plastic, support for organizations like GAIA is a good place to start.

And now, for the bad news

With solutions at hand, a 78 percent reduction in plastic waste sounds impressive.

Unfortunately, it is not.

The scenario mapped out by the research team found that “even with immediate and concerted action, 710 million metric tons of plastic waste cumulatively entered aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems” by 2040.

“To avoid a massive build-up of plastic in the environment, coordinated global action is urgently needed to reduce plastic consumption, increase rates of reuse, waste collection and recycling, expand safe disposal systems and accelerate innovation in the plastic value chain,” the authors warn.

Public policies that continue to support plastic industry stakeholders share part of the blame. The rest lies squarely on the shoulders of consumers.

“Plastic pollution is globally ubiquitous. It is found throughout the oceans, in lakes and rivers, in soils and sediments, in the atmosphere, and in animal biomass,” the authors write. "This proliferation has been driven by rapid growth in plastic production and use combined with linear economic models that ignore the externalities of waste. A sharp rise in single-use plastic consumption and an expanding ‘throw-away culture’ have exacerbated the problem.

Businesses engage consumers on plastic waste

While the outlook is dire, the new study indicates that businesses are on the right track when they urge their customers to be more conscious about plastic waste in general, and the ocean plastic problem in particular.

Beverage and food brands are beginning to take the lead in that regard. One good example is Bacardi, which has leveraged the global plastic straw campaign to draw attention to the ocean plastic problem.

AB-InBev’s Corona brand has adopted a similar approach by experimenting with biodegradable six-pack rings, and spirits leader Diageo is introducing a paper pulp bottle for its Johnnie Walker brand.

Other leading brands, including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, are also taking more steps to reduce plastic while raising consumer awareness.

Companies that do not rely on single-use packaging can also take action by identifying consumer behaviors that contribute to the problem.

That movement is already under way in organized sports, where fans are encouraged to recycle. However, there are other opportunities that are not being exploited. The auto industry, for example, could be more proactive in discouraging drivers from throwing bottles, cans and other trash out of cars.

Companies can also scout for new alliances that reduce plastic waste. One good example is the collaboration between UPS and the startup Loop to promote reusable food containers. Kitchen appliance manufacturers could hitch a ride on that effort, too.

New recycling and upcycling technologies are also on the horizon, but those solutions may be years away.

In the meantime, leading brands can make a big difference by exercising creativity and seeking new opportunities to reach consumers with positive messages about their contributions to a healthier, more sustainable future.

Image credit: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey