From Finding Waste to Finding Ways

A beach overwhelmed with trash. A decaying albatross, guts punctured by colorful shards from old packaging. Further ahead, a turtle tangled in plastic knots struggling to escape from a discarded beer carrier. These images are symptomatic of the dismal plastic waste problem afflicting our oceans. The numbers paint an even more staggering picture: the Global Plastic Action Partnership estimates that more than 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year. The evidence is clear: the world’s dependence on plastic and the subsequent mishandling of this waste represents a danger to human health, entire ecosystems, and the whole planet.

Fortunately, the gravity of this crisis has reached the mainstream as awareness of the global ocean plastic waste problem gains traction on YouTube. Two popular content creators, “Mr. Beast” and Mark Rober, have rallied the support of thousands of internet personalities to issue an ambitious challenge to their combined platform of more than 1 billion subscribers: raise $30 million to eliminate 30 million pounds of plastic waste and other trash from oceans, beaches, and rivers worldwide. The YouTuber duo have pledged crowdfunded donations to benefit two non-profit organizations: The Ocean Cleanup Project uses artificial intelligence and robots to boost clean- up efforts while The Ocean Conservancy organizes volunteer shore clean-up programs.

Brandishing #TeamSeas as its viral battle cry, this grassroots movement channels internet hype to advance a crucial environmental cause. The initiative’s accessible appeal and widespread following shows that people do care about this problem and are willing to contribute their own money to help. With about $20 million raised, the project’s momentum shows no signs of slowing – both in terms of its snowballing popularity and in the project’s undeniable impact on the oceans’ health.

Taking Stock of the Crisis

Indeed, the clear objective of #TeamSeas and similar grassroots movements provide a stark contrast to the outcome of the COP26 negotiations. The newly adopted Glasgow Climate Pact includes an open but frustratingly toothless invitation for “relevant work programmes and constituted bodies under the UNFCCC to consider how to integrate and strengthen ocean-based action in their existing mandates and work plans.” Ongoing US-backed multilateral discussions aimed at curbing plastic waste in the oceans may provide viable frameworks for accountability for the world’s serial polluters. Still, with deliberations slated to begin in February 2022 and outcomes uncertain, the pace of institutional change may be too slow and impeded by politics to tackle the problem effectively. The silver lining: growing public outcry might put enough pressure on policymakers to finally move the plastic waste problem to the top of the agenda.

The irony is hard to miss: everyone is talking about climate change these days, but few pay attention to the critical role of oceans in the environmental balance. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that between 50-80% of the oxygen on Earth is produced by the ocean through plankton photosynthesis. In fact, the planet’s supply of oxygen overwhelmingly comes from the oceans, and only secondarily from plants and trees. Furthermore, the oceans act as a massive carbon sink, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. And yet, the issues ailing the oceans – plastic waste and microplastics, chemical pollution, loss of biodiversity – remained largely unaddressed by COP26 negotiators.

Environmental research suggests that the planet cannot keep bearing the brunt of the world’s plastic fixation. Skyrocketing plastic use in the last 70 years and the mishandling of the resulting waste have pushed the damage to catastrophic levels. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the biggest accumulation of floating trash, is estimated to be 1.6 million km2 – roughly 4.5x the land area of Germany.

Averting a Plastic Tidal Wave

How did the crisis reach this point? To answer this question, a 2019 study examined 32,000 rivers worldwide and found that a small fraction (5%) of rivers contribute 80% of the world’s ocean plastic waste. Interestingly, large river basins generally do not contribute the highest plastic emissions, but rather the small-to-medium urban rivers which are relatively closer to the sea. The top culprits are the Pasig River in the Philippines and the Klang River in Malaysia. By targeting and entrapping waste in the most vulnerable rivers, governments and NGOs can already significantly reduce the plastic leakage into the oceans. Paying attention to the environmental sources of the damage illuminates the solution; tackling the plastic problem demands systemic changes more than individual action.

Certainly, people and organizations can contribute by altering their consumption patterns and cutting plastic use. However, consumers can buy only what is produced for them. Firms and industries must face real accountability in every stage of the supply chain, from virgin plastic production to final packaging. Failing to do so will continue to enable the long- term damage of chasing the lowest cost for the highest profit. Multinational corporations and large state-owned industries have failed to integrate sustainability into their business models, emphasizing the corporate bottom line over the environment. Sia Sunderland, co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet, sums it up neatly: “It is not a shopper problem. It is an industry problem. We buy what we are sold. Sell us something better.”

While grassroots movements like The Ocean Cleanup and The Ocean Conservancy play an important role in cleaning up ocean waste and in mobilizing public support, sadly, such reactive solutions will not be enough to resolve the problem. If people are serious about addressing the growing ocean of plastic, the unabated proliferation of plastics in everyday life must stop. Like climate change, a global threat to human and environmental security of this magnitude needs systemic, proactive solutions. That means changes to the economy and peoples’ lifestyles, with governments stepping up as key drivers of change.

Meaningful change requires action on multiple fronts. First, producers and consumers alike must significantly reduce plastics as much as possible, conscious of the net impact of their choices. A widespread ban on avoidable, single-use plastics would support this shift. To further minimize plastic waste, products need to be redesigned so finished goods end up back in a circular economy. As for the plastics that do get used, governments should significantly expand waste collection to prevent trash from ending up in the rivers and finally the oceans. Whatever is left to waste, both private and government support for increased recycling and conversion efforts are necessary for these to be incorporated back into the circular economy. The incentive? Increasing consumer scrutiny of corporate practices and citizens’ criticism of government (in)actions.

Finally, governments must step up and make coordinated efforts to address ocean pollution as well as support recycling efforts in developing countries. A two-pronged approach may prove most impactful: provide funding to existing social movements like The Ocean Cleanup and Ocean Conservancy and organize large-scale clean-up missions of their own. Playing politics and harbouring an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude would only worsen the problem.

Balancing Optimism with Reality

In all sustainability questions, answers represent choices. Potential solutions cannot escape the material reality that truly “green” products do not exist – yet. From production, to use, and final disposal, all goods leave an environmental footprint; measuring greenness therefore entails gauging which ones exact the least long-term damage. More pragmatic approaches to sustainability that acknowledge this reality offer balanced interventions that can, at the very least, slow down the pace of ocean degradation. On the one hand, plastics are here to stay; their convenience sustains the pace and meets the complex demands of modern economies. On the other hand, producers, consumers, and governments can do their part by making more conscious choices to protect the environment, whether their impact starts from supermarket aisles, grassroots frontlines, or corridors of power. The bottom line: plastic isn’t cheap; the planet simply pays the hidden price.

Written by Shaira Rabi & Sophia Natividad; Edited by Stefan Bartl; Cover Art by Isabel Milheiriço