The Myth of Ocean Waste and Plastics
Many of us do volunteer activities that include trash collection, recycling and beach cleanups. Lately, our colleagues in Hong Kong cleaned up and helped to record the waste collected on the shoreline on a volunteer ocean trash data form provided by International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), contributing the data to the rest of the world. More often than not, one will naturally presume that items made of plastics will top the list on the form.
When Reality Strikes
While plastic items have their fair share, cigarette butts and multilayer food wrappers come first. Our colleagues' record actually resonates with surveys done on ocean trash. The 2022 Report of Ocean Conservancy and ICC has interesting data for us to reflect on when it comes to waste disposal and management. The pattern has been the same for over 10 years.
The top 10 items collected were:
- Food wrappers (candy, chips, etc.): 1,341,463
- Cigarette butts: 1,134,292
- Beverage bottles (plastic): 849,321
- Other trash (clean swell): 613,972
- Bottle caps (plastics): 579,020
- Grocery bags (plastic): 415,245
- Beverage bottles (glass): 304,337
- Beverage cans: 267,189
- Straws, stirrers: 260,395
- Cups, plates (plastic): 245,961
Source Of Marine Waste: How Human Actions Backfire
Marine waste exists in oceans due to human actions such as waste discharge from dumps near coasts or riverbanks, litter on beaches, tourist/recreational use of the coast, fishing activities and shipbreaking yards.
The build-up of accumulated solid waste being disposed of (and the slow rate at which most items degrade) has resulted in a gradual increase in the amount of marine waste—posing environmental, human health and economic issues apart from a detrimental effect on marine life. Being at the top of the food chain, humans' incorrect behavior of waste disposal backfires.
Don't Give Us Problems, Give Us Solutions
In an effort to address the issues, a number of decisions were made in recent years—some banning certain materials in various regions, sometimes without consultation with the industry or stakeholders. There should be justifiable reasons why plastics and other useful materials have their place in our contemporary life. More importantly, end-of-life materials should be disposed of in the right place and in the right manner.
Rather than banning these materials, the genuine solutions are often planned education, regulations, tools/resources to build and improve waste infrastructure, sustainable packaging design and the setting up of a recycling ecosystem for all.
Plastic Value Chain Working To Reduce Ocean Pollution
Apart from proactively seeking ways to manufacture products to realize a circular economy, most in the plastic value chain are taking steps to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution to help Earth become healthier again. For example, we've partnered with Operation Clean Sweep (OCS), a voluntary, free program whose mission is "improving awareness, promoting best practices and providing guidance and tools to support companies from the plastic value chain in the implementation of the necessary pellet loss prevention measures."
With every company along the value chain that takes similar steps, we are one step closer to having a universal commitment at the industry level. OCS is an industrial initiative of the plastic value chain to ensure that pellets that should not end up in the water are not found there. We believe this is a more logical solution than not producing plastic pellets that offer convenience to our daily life such as lightweight parts in vehicles, casings of our mobile phones and laptop computers, surgical masks that the healthcare community uses or mattresses we sleep on.
Naturally, the industry also continues to advance our research and innovation for a circular economy.
Why A Circular Economy Helps Eliminate Ocean Wastes
Resources can be regenerated, and waste can be reduced or completely eliminated in a circular economy. Achieving such an ambitious end-of-life material model requires broad industry collaboration and commitment as well as new approaches and a shift in thinking.
The plastic value chain is helping to build a sustainable infrastructure that supports a circular economy through partnerships and compliance with upcoming environmental regulations. Its purpose is to pave the way for circular solutions, contributing to the possibility of a circular economy.
With some game-changing recycling technologies, some plastic materials can be recycled 100%—meaning we can give a material infinite recyclability. The recycled plastics are as good as the virgin ones, with properties suitable for almost every application it is intended for. This is critical since we are reducing waste at source.
How Individuals Can Help
While many individuals can easily see recycling bins near their office or their residence, it will only be meaningful if they're used. Everyone needs to do their small part to achieve meaningful recycling, as this provides the base to work onward. This also reduces waste at the source.
If an infinitely recyclable plastic material is disposed of at the landfill, it is lost forever. These materials should be recycled so that recyclers have feedstock to work with. While this sounds like a double- or even triple-coincidence of wants, we can't underestimate our waste management habits.
Encouraging sustainable product design is also of prime importance to help improve product recyclability. Showing consumers' general tendency to prefer sustainable product design also act as a pull factor for product designers to use more sustainable and recyclable materials.
Be That Missing Piece Of The Puzzle
While it's often easier said than done, let's have science to develop solutions and do our role in helping ensure the concerted efforts of all stakeholders make things right again. Responsible human behavior relating to waste disposal and a proper solid waste management system are critical pieces of the puzzle.
Natalia Scherbakoff is a member of Forbes Technology Council. Get more insights from Scherbakoff’s thought leadership by reading her posts published on Forbes.com.