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NGOs alone will not turn the tide on ocean trash

A clear-eyed optimistic strategy involving businesses, governments and individuals can create a seismic shift in the way we tackle the ocean plastic crisis

A key focus of next week’s United Nation’s Ocean Conference, which will bring together up to 10,000 people from countries around the world, will be the crisis of trash and plastic polluting our ocean. Volunteers from over 100 of those countries are critical contributors to the 2016 International Coastal Cleanup report being released on World Environment Day as a reminder that global action is alive and a vital part of the solutions we seek. 

Let’s take a moment to celebrate that in 2016, more than a half a million people removed over 18 million pounds from almost 15,000 miles of coasts, beaches and waterways.

Yet the reality is that cleanups alone cannot stem the tide of an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste that flows into our ocean every year. That’s the equivalent of one garbage truck dumping a full load of plastic into the ocean every minute.

Large quantities of plastic have been found on even the remotest islands, washed up from the far corners of the globe. The vast quantities of plastic found on the surface of the ocean accounts for less than 3 percent of plastic entering the ocean every year, including what is found in the north Pacific Gyre (also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). Science tells us that there could be one pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the ocean by 2025.

That is a future that no one wants.

In 2016, more than a half a million people removed over 18 million pounds from almost 15,000 miles of coasts, beaches and waterways.

The numbers are not encouraging

Globally, we generate roughly 2 billion metric tons of trash (PDF download) annually, and that’s expected to double by 2050. At least 2 billion people don’t have access to waste collection services. At least 3 billion people don’t have access to safe, well-managed waste disposal facilities.

In her groundbreaking research, Jenna Jambeck and her Jambeck Research Group colleagues found that 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from land. Most is garbage that is never collected or leaks out of the system once collected. In many places, this leads to uncontrolled dumping or open burning of waste. That leads to more trash in our ocean, dangerous emissions, flooded waterways and the spread of disease. Even in countries with high collection rates and excellent waste management systems, trash can lead to pollution and resources are being squandered. 

Clearly, we need to turn take action but where and how? 

There is no simple answer. NGOs — even those focused on ocean conservation — can raise awareness but cannot singlehandedly turn the tide on ocean trash. Ocean Conservancy believes that the only viable path is for all of us to work simultaneously and cooperatively across multiple fronts. We need the reach of consumer brands, the innovation of plastic producers, the advocacy efforts of conservation groups and world-class research by scientists to truly make progress. 

The Trash Free Seas Alliance seeks to engage the private sector in solving the problem of ocean plastic. We are working with governments to support innovative, locally appropriate waste management systems that ensure materials such as plastics are retained and recovered for other uses or proper disposal, and never find their way into the ocean. The collective commitments being made next week at the U.N. Ocean Conference by the Alliance are staggering. At least $10 million will go toward: 

  1. advancing scientific understanding of the sources, causes and impacts of marine plastic debris, including emerging areas of concern such as microfibers;
  2. working with the public and private sectors to address the sources of marine plastics, particularly through improved waste management; and
  3. building sustained support from governments, multilateral institutions, corporations and the public to tackle ocean trash.

Making the pieces fit requires coordination, is worth the effort

Coalitions create powerful synergies. Scientific innovation directed toward creating materials that are easier to recycle or products that reuse plastics found on beaches will complement governments creating incentives for companies and consumers to ensure those products stay in the system, which could lead to companies investing in solutions that support collection and recycling systems and more volunteers rallying their communities to clean up and divert waste from landfills. 

Coalitions also create amplification. When advocates from different sectors — the unlikely bedfellows — all ask for the same thing, influencers takes note; decision-makers pay attention. Today, we are seeing marine plastics, waste reduction and waste management being discussed at high-level fora such as the United Nations, the G20 and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, potentially unlocking billions of dollars of development capital. Countries such as Indonesia and Belgium are leading the way with their own marine debris action plans.

Ocean Conservancy believes that today, more than any other time in the past, the world is primed and ready to take on the challenge of ocean trash. We support efforts to reduce plastics that go into the waste stream. We see value in improving the collection and containment of plastic waste. We welcome and encourage volunteer action to remove trash from our beaches and coastlines. We are ready to work with those who want to be part of the solution.

This is our time to make a lasting impact. Let’s turn the tide on trash together.

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