We Need to Do More than Just Clean the Ocean

Note: I’m a student researching the root causes behind the issue of plastic pollution in the hopes of figuring out a key bottleneck in the way we solve this challenge! My team is exploring many different areas of this enormous problem and I’m writing this series of articles about our key findings. If you find this interesting and would like to see some of our other research, feel free to check out our work at problemplasticpollution.com

You might’ve seen ads on social media showing marine life caught in plastic waste like this:

(Source: BBC America, Blue Planet)

It’s sad to realise that this really is the reality in much of our oceans. And then, the ads direct you to some e-commerce site where you can buy bracelets to help pull a pound of plastics out of the ocean! It’s great for the planet and it makes you feel good and… it doesn’t work.

While it’s not much fun to talk about this aspect of the issue with plastic pollution, it’s necessary to acknowledge that some efforts to combat the issue of plastic pollution are a lot less effective in the long run than others. And some companies that claim to solve this big problem are a lot less honest than others.

I don’t want to discourage any well-intentioned people working on this issue already— but for those still looking to see how to impact plastic pollution, there are a few reasons why your time and money might not be best spent on cleaning plastic from the ocean.

The team at Our World in Data summarised the issue of comparing plastic pollution in our oceans to plastic pollution as a whole pretty intuitively:

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(Source: the amazing team at Our World in Data)

Starting on the left in the chain of problems in plastic pollution, you had 270 million tonnes of plastic produced / year (this is from 2010 in particular). Not all that production turned into plastic waste. According to Our World in Data, 30% of plastics produced between 1950 and 2010 were still in use! Other portions were recycled, incinerated, or disposed of safely in landfills.

BUT, a good amount of plastics still end up as waste every year. In 2010, 275 million tonnes did (this is larger than the amount of plastic produced because plastics from past years as well as 2010 turned into waste).

Not all of this waste is at risk of polluting the ocean either (although it might pollute other environments). Most plastic waste at risk of entering the ocean is in coastal regions (within 50 km of coastline) and this makes up 99.5 million tonnes out of the 275 million tonnes of plastic waste.

The majority of this waste is disposed of safely: recycled, incinerated, or sent to a properly managed landfill for instance. But 31.9 million tonnes of plastic waste is ‘mismanaged’ — which usually means it’s stored in open dumps or mismanaged landfills, where it can leak into the ocean. Plastic that’s littered is also mismanaged, but about 2% of plastics are assumed to be litter on average around the world (Source).

Out of the 31.9 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste near coastlines, about 8 million tonnes actually do end up in the oceans. This is about 25% of the mismanaged coastal waste (31.9 million tonnes / year), 8% of all coastal waste (99.5 million tonnes / year), and 2.9% of all plastic waste (275 million tonnes / year).

An even smaller subset of this is plastic ends up in surface waters, which is where ocean cleanup efforts are focused (different capture technologies like nets are used to accumulate plastics). This represents a few hundreds of thousands of tonnes at the highest estimates. This would be under 0.4% of all plastic waste (275 million tonnes / year).

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An example of a plastic collection net at work. (Source: The Ocean Cleanup)

That’s not to say that this small amount of waste entering the oceans doesn’t have an environmental impact. To paraphrase a conversation I had with Charles Rolsky, CSO at Plastic Oceans: marine ecosystems are severely impacted by plastic pollution and although a country might not produce a lot of plastic waste — its natural ecosystem can still be harmed by plastic pollution circulating through global ocean currents.

BUT if you think about this chain of issues in plastic pollution, the best place for intervention is at earlier levels. There’s a lot more impact to be had in reducing the plastics production or increasing the reuse/recycling of plastics to prevent them from becoming waste than by cleaning plastics at the surface of the ocean.

While it certainly does create some impact to clean the oceans, organisations working on this rely on other people to tackle the root causes of plastic pollution (like waste management, decreasing plastic usage, or improving recyclability) while they mitigate the issue’s impact to buy us more time.

So when it comes to solving plastic pollution as, you’re best off working on something other than just cleaning the ocean. And there really is harm in just directing attention to a symptom of the plastic pollution issue instead of the important root causes.

For instance, take another company that’s working to clean the oceans: 4Ocean. They sell bracelets made of recycled products and use the profits to clean plastic pollution from the ocean. They’ve been massively successful at this, effectively creating an entire community of support for their efforts through their branding.

But the issue is that most of this support is going towards addressing a symptom of the plastic pollution problem instead of the root causes. And since 4Ocean operates as a business, not all of its profits go towards cleaning the oceans either. The public doesn’t have exact numbers, but there is some SPECULATION informally about how much (or little) of the company’s profits actually go towards cleaning the ocean (Source).

As mentioned earlier, the major fixes to this issue rely on intervening at earlier parts of the plastic pollution chain. Instead of cleaning plastic pollution once it’s in the environment, stopping it from getting there in the first place. Some areas that still need more work to develop are:

  • Decreasing the usage of plastic. Some current solutions to do this are government policies like Extended Producer Responsibility in Canada (Source) or consumer advocacy to use fewer plastic products (Source).
  • Using more environmentally friendly materials to replace plastics. Some current solutions involve using existing alternative materials like paper (Source) or developing new materials like bioplastics to replace plastics.
  • Improving the recyclability of plastics to prevent them ending up as waste. A major part of the issue is dealing with low-residual value plastics (Source)
  • Improving waste management systems to prevent plastics from reaching the environment. There are lots of available technologies, all with their upsides and downsides (Source)

With all this being said, we can come back to the standard scene from the social media ad:

(Source: BBC America, Blue Planet)

And instead of thinking about how to remove the plastic waste from the oceans to help marine life like this, our team hopes to get more people thinking about how to address the core issues around the world that stop this picture from ever taking place again.

Before You Go

Hey, if you found that article interesting, feel free to check out some of my other research at problemplasticpollution.com. If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to get in touch with me via Linkedin.

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/

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