The ocean plastic pollution problem can seem intractable — after all, up to 13 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean every year. And this pollution, unfortunately, does not simply float innocuously on the water’s surface. Marine life can ingest plastics, affecting ecosystem health and seafood.
Economically speaking, the costs can be surprisingly significant. Here’s one big number: $206,000. That’s the amount of damage marine litter causes the Scottish aquaculture industry each year. A 2018 study by Deloitte concluded that ocean plastic pollution results in a huge hit in countries that rely on oceans for their economic well-being: up to $19 billion across 87 coastal nations.
Over the past few years, the world has been grappling with how to solve the plastic pollution crisis. Cities have instituted plastic bag and straw bans. A Dutch nonprofit, The Ocean Cleanup, even began capturing waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch last year.
While these regulations, recapture schemes and curbs in consumerism are an essential part of protecting our oceans, they really only touch a small part of the problem. A Blue Paper commissioned by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy points out that visible plastic only makes up 3 percent of the total plastic in the ocean. If we are to truly cultivate a healthy and clean ocean system, the authors posit, we need a holistic approach.
It’s easy to be mesmerized by images of white sand beaches covered in colorful crops of netting and bottles and by the image of a mass of plastic twice the size of Texas gyrating in the middle of the Pacific, but we can’t afford to get distracted from the bigger picture of ocean pollution.
The Blue Paper, titled Leveraging Multi-Target Strategies to Address Plastic Pollution in the Context of an Already Stressed Ocean, emphasizes that truly effective action will diminish other types of pollution as well — including, but not limited to, fertilizer, heavy metals and oil.
The logic is quite simple. Pollution finds its way to the ocean via predictable pathways and means, no matter what it is. Going upstream and dealing with those common causes can have compounding effects, the authors contend.
Seven interventions — that’s what researchers found when investigating how to reduce pollution, including plastics, entering the ocean.
These strategies are simple (not easy) but very practical. Governments, people, nonprofits, and businesses can put these into practice in their local communities, cities, states and nations. Practical steps include managing wastewater, banning the use of harmful chemicals and improving coastal zones.
The interventions begin with the basic necessity of wastewater management infrastructure, which more than a third of the global population lacks. It goes without saying: Allowing untreated wastewater to enter the ocean threatens wildlife and human health.
The second suggestion confronts the literal streams of stormwater that carry any number of pollutants to the ocean, from residential litter to golf course fertilizers. The requirement here would be installing stormwater drain filtration and river mouth trash collection. These systems can stop not only litter from entering the ocean, but also chemicals and microplastics that come from sources including tire dust and even apparel.
A couple of interventions, of course, go to the absolute root of the problem: for one, using cleaner chemicals and materials and supporting research into less harmful materials, and reducing the use of plastics through fees, elevated industry standards and revised cultural norms.
Even though the report’s interventions are practical, they aren’t all obvious. The seventh recommendation is building local systems for safe food and water. Yet again, a third of the global population lacks access to clean drinking water. The authors note that adequate drinking water standards can reduce the need for single-use plastic bottles.
The oceans don’t see nations or borders, wealth or poverty — an important reminder as today is World Oceans Day. The oceans connect us. Likewise, they require cooperation to be truly healthy. To successfully implement these practical interventions, industries, sectors and political parties need to work together to solve the ocean plastic pollution problem.
What is encouraging about these interventions, though, is that they are feasible, and every community and jurisdiction can find a clear place to start and distinct steps to take.
Image credit: Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.