Will corporate action on ocean plastic make an impact? 6 ways to tell

Illustration of whale with plastic in belly
ShutterstockDvorakova Veronika
No single organization can solve this monumental problem alone.

Plastic in the ocean is reaching crisis proportions. It's found all over our ocean, inside fish and other creatures and among grains of salt, and in the deepest parts of the Marianas Trench to the surface of Arctic ice. While plastic has enabled environmental and societal advancements, it does not belong in our seas.

Less than a decade ago, there was very little information about this problem. We didn’t know how much plastic was going to the ocean, where it was coming from or why it was escaping. That changed with the 2015 publication of a groundbreaking Science paper by Jenna Jambeck and colleagues. For the first time, we had a sense for how much plastic is flowing in to the ocean (8 million metric tons per year), where it is coming from (land), and what causes those leaks (exponentially increased production of plastics with inadequate recycling and waste management systems where development outpaces infrastructure). Additional analysis such as our "Stemming the Tide" report (PDF) built on this research and showed us where to target our efforts.

Organizations such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the World Bank and the newly formed Closed Loop Oceans are implementing high-impact solutions, such as investing in waste collection and recycling. Governments including Indonesia are stepping up, recognizing their authority and responsibility. And the push for action is increasing, seemingly every year. At the United Nation’s Ocean Conference in New York last year, 561 action-taking pledges were made against ocean pollution. 

A growing number of these commitments are coming from the private sector, a necessary and welcome development.NGOs — even those focused on ocean conservation — can’t solve this problem alone. Governments bring a new level of authority and organization. But we still need the private sector to make a significant difference, and we need to hold it accountable — recognizing that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Companies are at different places along the pathway of sustainability, and we want to work with them to make sure their commitments make a meaningful difference.

At the Trash Free Seas Alliance meeting in December, members adopted principles which include making commitments "at a level and intensity commensurate with achieving a 50 percent reduction of plastic waste entering the ocean annually by 2025, and reflective of the size and nature of an organization." As members put these words into action, this is the lens through which we are evaluating whether actions add up to impact. This is the type of effort required to solve this issue. 

We’re watching these six things to tell if corporate commitments have a measurable impact on reducing ocean plastic:

1. Practicing transparency and accountability

In other words, show us the math. This has been the foundation of commitments from Trash Free Seas Alliance members. Are corporations and others putting real numbers behind their commitments in order to quantify their impact? How many tons of plastic are they keeping out of the ocean through their actions? And how does that compare to the number of plastics they use or produce? To answer this, we need numbers. The recent Coca-Cola announcement of taking a bottle or can back for every bottle or can it sells globally so these materials have more than one life is a major commitment that could result in significant reductions of plastic ocean leakage.  

2. Focusing on high-impact solutions that efficiently and effectively reduce plastic waste

Science tells us that we can reduce the majority of plastic leakage quickly by making sure waste is collected and securely managed in certain geographies. This makes sense; when a pipe bursts we stop the flow before cleaning up the mess. Uncollected waste accounts for 75 percent of land-based plastic leakage, and the remaining 25 percent escapes from the system after being collected.

Geography matters too. China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand contribute more than 50 percent of the world’s ocean plastic. Much of that flows through just 10 rivers: the Yangtze; the Indus; Yellow River; Hai River; the Nile; the Ganges; Pearl River; Amur River; the Niger; and the Mekong.

Industry has a role to play, through investing in and actively supporting the development of better recycling infrastructure. The Trash Free Seas Alliance has committed to a new initiative with Closed Loop Partners to raise $150 million to invest in waste collection and recycling in Southeast Asia. These funds will leverage investment from others to support innovations in high-priority geographies, and will show how such projects can be viable investments for others.

3. Leveraging policy to create the right conditions

Policy must lay the groundwork for sound waste management and responsible business practices. The private sector has enormous influence, and can change quickly and effectively when it chooses to do so.

In addition to its actions, does a company support policies that have been proven effective and will enable larger change, or does it actively oppose them? Many policy initiatives have been implemented to reduce or better manage waste, such as to ensure straws are only provided on request; to set minimum recycling targets; and to impose fees or limit the use of plastic bags, straws and other single-use items, container deposits and other return schemes that include efforts related to "extended producer responsibility."

People have differing views on what constitutes effective policy, and details matter, in order for policies to have the desired impact. That's all the more reason the private sector should bring its influence to bear and actively engage in crafting and advancing policies that work  such as tax incentives — all while holding governments accountable for implementation.

4. Reducing overall amounts of plastic waste

Will corporate commitments reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place, including by designing products with materials that ease collection and recycling? Advancements in material and packaging optimization have had incredible environmental and financial savings with a clear business case. And as we’ve seen most recently with leading industry efforts to eliminate microbeads and the United Kingdom's ban on microbeads in personal care products, some plastics can be eliminated without compromising price or performance.

There is also room for creativity and collaboration: Plastic producers, consumer brands and major retailers can work together to re-think items such as food wrappers or single-use packages of everything from coffee to shampoo. Higher-margin reusable or refillable products can replace these where possible, or reinvent them when it's not. In many developing countries, in particular, this would go a long way.

5. Ensuring circularity

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 70 percent of existing plastic packaging can be redesigned to be reused or recycled. This could be through new materials or better design, or commitments to increase recyclability and the use of recycled content.

But we need to pay close attention to those commitments. Just because a product is technically recyclable doesn’t mean it will be recycled — because the basic collection and sorting infrastructure isn’t in place to recover it, or because consumers "opt out" and plastics end up in the environment or in landfills. This is where industry, governments and policymakers must come together to ensure and invest in adequate collection and functioning recycling systems — we must work collaboratively to ensure a proper end of life or next life for products.

On its own, increasing the amount of "recyclable" products on shelves may just increase the amount of "recyclable" plastic in the ocean. On the other hand, commitments to make products recyclable and made out of recycled content are better. By creating demand for recycled content, companies can support recycling markets and increase the economic incentive to recover and recycle plastic waste.   

6. Supporting collaboration and providing leadership

While corporations can do much within their own business practices, many of these solutions require collaboration across supply chains and industries, and with governments and civil society. Many collaborative spaces already exist. Companies can participate and provide leadership to create collaborative solutions by working with groups such as the Consumer Goods Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, WWF’s Cascading Materials Vision, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, the World Economic Forum and Closed Loop Ocean. 

Quantifying the results from such actions will be hard, and will require new thinking and new methodologies.  Measuring impact in such a complex system is notoriously difficult. But we have to try; as we know, we can’t manage what we can’t measure. 

It's not enough for corporations just to say the right things. They need to walk the proverbial walk. Thankfully, many corporations around the globe — Trash Free Seas Alliance members and beyond — are committed to solving this problem. They join an expanding cadre of committed governments, NGOs, scientists and citizens. We’ve come a long way together since 2011 in our understanding of the problem, and in the solutions we're developing and implementing. Now it is time to show that we are making a difference.