This is an incredible opportunity to make an impact on plastic

Waste bins in Kamikatsu, a zero-waste town in Japan
Stories/YouTube
Waste bins in Kamikatsu, a town in Japan without garbage trucks.

Is this the decade when we solve ocean plastic — or repeat the mistakes of the past? 

Recently, Nathaniel Rich told an incredible story about the decade when we could have stopped global warming. In the 1980s, "The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since," he wrote. "During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves."

It’s nearly impossible to imagine this kind of consensus today — in a world that every day feels more and more divided. Yet plastic waste and ocean pollution actually could be the issues that connect us.

From environmentalists and governments to consumer brands and plastic companies, we all agree on the science and the solutions: 

  • We know where plastic is entering the environment: South and Southeast Asia.
  • We know why: mismanaged waste generated by exponentially growing economies.
  • We know what needs to be done: Build integrated waste and recycling infrastructure and supply chains.
  • We know how to do it: Implement key policies to enable the financing and implementation of proven business models.

If we follow through, not only will we stop ocean plastic,  we also dramatically will improve the livelihoods of the people living in these communities — and our collective future.

I founded Circulate Capital to accelerate the engagement of the financial sector to enable and deploy billions of dollars to build the systems needed. But money can’t solve anything by itself — we need all stakeholders to play roles and drive solutions. 

Ocean plastic pollution is a systems problem that requires a systems solution.

Take healthcare, for example. It’s as easy to suggest that consumer goods companies or cities should clean up plastic waste as it is to suggest they should provide insurance for their employees. But nobody expects companies or cities to own health insurance companies or hospitals; instead, they work with insurance and medical providers to deliver on those expectations. Using such an analogy, we must expect companies and cities to act responsibly within waste and recycling systems.

These systems depend on:

  • Entrepreneurs to create localized and sustainable businesses for better waste management. A great example of this is GEM Recycling in India, which transforms post-consumer recycled PET bottles into fiber, which can be used to make textiles.
  • Corporations to improve the recyclability and recycling of their packaging, demonstrated in Pepsi’s recent announcement of the goal to recover 7 billion additional containers over the next five years.
  • NGOs to raise awareness about opportunities to change behavior and construct solutions, such as the Ocean Conservancy, which created the Trash Free Seas Act to build the science and strengthen a global focus on marine debris.
  • Municipalities to establish campaigns to help minimize waste: In Japan, the town of Kamikatsu began a campaign in 2003 that has reduced landfill waste to just 20 percent and phased out the practice of incineration.
  • Waste and recycling companies to work cohesively to manage growing demands. An example is found in Veolia, which employed a global network to convert 47 million metric tons of waste into new materials and energy in 2017. 

This is the year the world decided to pay attention to ocean plastic. We can’t afford to miss the opportunity — as we did in the 1980s on climate change. 

It’s not a perspective issue. There is no political divide. We need to work together to create solutions, not compete amongst ourselves. If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to make a real impact, we only have ourselves to blame.