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Private sectors can engage global communities to improve the health of oceans

Plastic garbage on a mountain river bank
Vova Shevchuk

The theme of last week’s World Oceans Day was "Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean," the phrasing of which is at once broad and defined. How is the ocean not sustainable, and why is innovation needed to save it? The answers to these questions are manifold and point to private sectors (businesses, nonprofits and NGOs) as having the most impact in the short and long term.

For starters, the rate at which ocean resources are used for business is much greater than our activities to offset the resulting impacts. The combined assets of the ocean economy, including fishery, tourism, trade and transportation (the on-sea shipping of goods), amount to an annual gross product of $2.5 trillion, while the damages could cost us $428 billion annually by 2050.

These damages range the gamut from sea level rise and direct ecosystem disruption from netting or trawling to indirect disruption from warming and acidification (caused in large part by human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide or CO2, 30 percent of which is absorbed by the ocean), and plastic pollution, which enters the sea at a rate of a full garbage truck a minute.

This is the definition of unsustainable. Not only do these trends impact our ability to use the ocean for business over time, but kill the ocean as we know it. Far enough away to work toward, yet quickly approaching, 2050 is the year we’re projected to see coral reefs completely disappear and more plastic than fish in the ocean if things don’t change.

Where governments and municipalities might be slower to act due to lack of economic and structural resources, the private sector can adapt quickly to work with communities and maintain a healthy 'blue economy.'

So things must change. Industry does not set out to leak chemicals or plastic into the ocean, or purposefully collect bycatch so it can be tossed back. These are externalities, inefficiencies in the "business as usual" that can be solved only by innovation not only of technology, but creating systems that accelerate the development and financing of new approaches.

Focusing on the plastic pollution problem, private sectors must drive collaborative and cooperative initiatives with the public sector (governments) in order to align interests, de-risk the process and create value for all stakeholders. 

Where governments and municipalities might be slower to act due to lack of economic and structural resources, the private sector can adapt quickly to work with communities and maintain a healthy "blue economy." It all boils down to economics, and investment is needed in local infrastructure, collection tools and technology, human resources and the support of end-markets for recycled material in developing countries to prevent plastic from becoming waste. 

With a core purpose to reduce the volume of marine debris and plastic waste found in the world’s waterways, the TerraCycle Global Foundation was created in 2018 as a public charity with financial support from The PepsiCo Foundation, consumer goods company PepsiCo’s philanthropic arm. This seed funding enabled the creation of the TerraCycle Thai Foundation, a locally registered independent nonprofit entity addressing the issue of marine plastic pollution in Thailand. Last week, it was honored to be a part of the United Nations World Oceans Day event hosted by the Thai government’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) in Bangkok.

Prototype for plastic traps in river

In regions of the world where a lack of economic resources make it difficult for local systems to keep up with waste collection (80 percent of ocean pollution flows in from land-based sources), the foundation aims to install special river plastic capture traps and engage the densely populated, low income canal communities in those regions in which we operate with an outreach strategy that communicates the issues of plastic pollution, focusing on educating and changing the behaviors that are major contributors.

By providing the proper marine waste removal equipment and connecting it to a comprehensive and effective on land sorting and recycling system, the residents will be able to reduce and remove the plastic waste in the marine environment.

The foundation also will provide efficient and cost-effective uses for the collected material —including primary packaging for major brands or applications such as road or construction materials. Thanks to the funding from The PepsiCo Foundation, we will be able to expand efforts in Thailand and begin moving into other Southeast Asian markets. We are taking steps to launch next in India, where the focus will be mobilizing a network of informal waste pickers to improve collection rates by providing fair wages, tools, supplies, and health and safety training.

It is in the best interest of business to invest in the "blue economy" as a means to sustain the productions of goods and services, and it must; the ocean does not have the time to wait on the political process of world governments and local lawmakers. Systems-thinking to drive action by aligning interests of industry and sustainability is where the innovation work truly lies.

In a world where waste management and recycling is on the decline even for "highly recyclable" materials, private sector innovation is needed for the environmental protection and economic development of global communities, and a healthier ocean now and for the future. 

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