Dow Chemical, Tiffany & Co. join a rising tide for ocean cleanup

Illustration of trash in the ocean
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There could be hope for transforming at least some of the trillions of pieces of plastic waste in the oceans.

The future of humanity depends on the health of the oceans. They provide half of the oxygen we breathe and absorb about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide we generate. They're worth at least $24 trillion to the global economy, according to a 2015 WWF report that valued marine and coastal goods and services at about $2.5 trillion each year, making the “blue" economy the seventh largest in the world in terms of Gross Domestic Product.

Yet oceans are under tremendous pressure from unsustainable and illegal fishing, pollution and climate-related impacts, their resources on a rapid decline. The imperative for action is stronger than ever, and the private sector must play a leading role.

One sign that power players are stepping up: Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the third annual Our Oceans event in Washington, D.C., in September, where President Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio also spoke. The Department of State conference yielded significant marine-focused initiatives by scores of world governments and a small number of companies. 

Our Oceans touted 136 new initiatives worth more than $5.2 billion, as well as protection for some 1.5 million square ocean miles. The Tiffany & Co. Foundation chimed in to double the protected marine and coastal areas of the Bahamas by 2020, part of a $3.2 million plan along with the Nature Conservancy, the Oceans 5 funders collaborative and Bahamian authorities. Other heavy-hitters including the Packard, Walton Family and Gordon and Betty Moore foundations each pledged hundreds of millions of dollars toward ocean conservation.

A swell of trash

The plague of marine debris surfaced as a rising concern. Dow Chemical launched a new $2.8 million project over the next two years to drive solutions that address ocean litter around the world. 

Marine debris should be an easy problem to tackle. Unlike such complex challenges as climate change, the solution is relatively straightforward: Just manage the waste stream of consumer plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, vessels and other detritus that enter the marine environment every day.

Much work remains, however, to set up the structures and systems to choke the steady flow. Dow has set its sights on the notion of a circular economy, which goes beyond the basics of recycling and reuse to create waste from forming in the first place.

"Products and materials should be designed to be reused," said Eunice Heath, Dow Chemical’s global director for sustainable markets and product strategy. "What can’t be reused should be repurposed and converted into something else — that way products and materials will retain their highest utility, service and value."

The numbers are astonishing: more than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. More than 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. Left unchecked, by 2025 there could be 250 million tons of plastic in the ocean, or 1 pound of plastic for every 3 pounds of fish.

Charting a new course

Yet a business opportunity may also lurk in the deep.

Dow’s initiative will focus on two areas: About half of the pledged money will go toward sponsorship of collaborative projects such as the Ocean Conservancy’s research and waste management pilot programs, and to support educational programs to promote recycling and prevent littering.

The other half will support ongoing research, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s work involving the development of new technologies toward a circular economy while advancing opportunities to turn waste into "a valuable end-state."

This includes increasing the recyclability of flexible packaging and developing chemical recycling technologies to convert non-recycled plastics into feedstocks that can be used to make new materials.

Dow said it aligns with the global plastics industry and key association partners in "recognizing marine debris and litter as a critical issue," and that the company "is committed to collaborating to address this global challenge with effective science-based solutions." 

It takes a fleet

Dow is not the only private company engaged in such partnerships to address marine debris. Fishing for Energy — a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta and Schnitzer Steel Industries — has successfully worked with local commercial fishermen and ports to collect and responsibly dispose of thousands of abandoned fishing traps and other unwanted gear.

As of April, Fishing for Energy had removed more than 3 million pounds of old fishing gear and marine debris from U.S. waterways and coastlines since 2008, and converted it into clean, renewable energy.

Dow and Covanta both belong to the Trash Free Seas Alliance, a global coalition led by the Ocean Conservancy that includes industry leaders, ocean advocates, analytical advisors, donors and government agencies committed to identifying the causes and developing solutions to prevent waste from entering the seas.

The alliance, which also includes the Coca-Cola Company, Procter & Gamble and Walmart, issued a report in 2015 identifying the countries responsible for the most significant sources of plastic leakage into the ocean, and solutions for these countries to properly concentrate and treat the plastic waste before it reaches marine environments.

One of the key takeaways was that collaboration is critical: "Industry leaders, NGOs and investors, along with local, national and multilateral government entities, need to jointly define the architecture of" a global marine debris program, for starters.

As global governments continue to make commitments, it creates an enormous opportunity for the private sector to join these efforts, thereby protecting the critical resources of the blue economy and reaping the benefits of its ongoing health.

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