Here's how we aim to close the loop on ocean plastic pollution

Here's how we aim to close the loop on ocean plastic pollution

Illustration of skeletons inside plastic bag
Most plastic waste appears to come from five developing nations in Asia.

Around 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped in the ocean annually. That equates to emptying a garbage truck of plastic into the sea every minute , most of it single-use products, such as plastic bags, candy wrappers, sachets and soda bottles.

This mismanagement not only pollutes oceans and harms marine wildlife, but also makes life harder for locals, whether they are residents of neighborhoods that regularly flood (owing to drains clogged with plastic), workers at coastal resorts that cater to tourists or fishermen facing dwindling fish stocks. The economic implications are startling. Marine debris cost the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation member economies around $1.3 billion in 2008, and that number is only going up as the problem gets worse. 

We’re encouraged that the world is waking up to the crisis of plastic waste in our ocean, and working together to resolve it. News outlets around the world highlighted the shocking video earlier this month of the British diver swimming through plastic waste off the coast of Bali. The recent World Ocean Summit, held in Mexico earlier this month, focused extensively on plastic waste. The sixth International Marine Debris conference convened last week in San Diego and highlighted new and emerging science that will help us tackle this growing problem. Earlier this year, Evian, Coca-Cola and other businesses announced efforts to address packaging waste and improve recyclability of their products. 

All of this is moving us in the right direction.To stop this flow of plastics into the ocean, the Asia-Pacific region needs more land-based systems for recycling and more markets for recycled products. This means building new infrastructure to collect, sort and process waste to prevent plastics and other materials from entering waterways and the ocean. It also involves developing new packaging designs that are easier to recycle and more valuable on the secondary market. With the right investments, we can help turn this waste into vital commodities for the manufacturing supply chain.

But there is a big, looming question: Where or who or how will we pay for these ideas if we are to move them from concept to reality? 

That's why we launched Closed Loop Ocean. This initiative aims to invest and unlock significant capital on behalf of the public and private sectors in better waste and recycling infrastructure in Southeast Asia. Closed Loop Partners and Ocean Conservancy are bringing together intergovernmental organizations, international nonprofits, financial institutions and industry leaders to stem the tide of ocean-bound waste while investing local communities and businesses. Partners include the Trash Free Seas Alliance, 3M, The Dow Chemical Company, Kimberly-Clark, The Coca-Cola Company, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, plastic makers from the American Chemistry Council and the World Plastics Council, and the Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA), an intergovernmental agency.  

The first step for keeping plastics out of the ocean is to locate where most of it is coming from in the first place. Studies show that almost half of this garbage comes from five rapidly developing economies in Asia: China; Indonesia; the Philippines; Vietnam; and Thailand. These countries are all experiencing ballooning populations and speedy industrial growth, and they lack the infrastructure to effectively manage their waste.

Closed Loop Partners has a proven track record investing in recycling infrastructure and the circular economy. We have financed more than $30 million worth of projects in over 20 American municipalities in order to return recycled waste to the consumer-product supply chain. Our fluency in the technology and business models necessary to unlock profit from circular-economy practices has unleashed more than $125 million in total capital, increased the value of recycled materials, and diverted over 200,000 tons of waste from landfills.

Bringing this knowledge to new markets in Southeast Asia will be tricky, however, as the needs, conditions and resources in these countries are different. This is why a critical first part of our plan involves engaging local leaders, entrepreneurs, investors and non-governmental organizations to figure out the best way to marry our best practices in waste management with their on-the-ground expertise and leadership. Our strategy is to support and invest in local solutions, not to impose our waste schemes on foreign markets.

Throughout 2018, once we have developed a network of partners and investors and established a pipeline of bankable ventures in Southeast Asia, we aim to narrow our focus to a few indicative projects. Our goal is to invest in plans that not only keep plastic waste out of the ocean, but also demonstrate how profitable and beneficial it can be to return recycled commodities to the supply chain. With these pilot projects, we will measure the effect of our interventions, shore up our relationships with local partners and create models that can be replicated throughout the region. Our partners from the consumer product and chemical industry are eager to invest in local waste-management infrastructure that will work to both keep their goods out of the ocean and generate new sources of recycled plastic to use in their products. 

It is still possible to avoid the worst effects of this pollution if we invest in locally led, land-based solutions to keep plastics and waste from entering marine environments.  We need some of the biggest players in the field — from industry titans to renowned environmentalists — to plot a more sustainable way forward, commercially and ecologically. By investing in holistic waste management projects in markets with the greatest plastic leakage today, we are supporting the development of emerging economies around the world.