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Plastic in the world’s oceans

Environment Programme / Partner story

Photo by Brian Yurasits from Unsplash

The world’s oceans are choking. Plastic rubbish washes up on beaches all around the world. Regularly it is found in the stomachs of fish, sea birds and other wildlife, ultimately killing them if it does not first compromise their fertility, or else it moves up the food chain till it arrives on our plates. By 2025 it is estimated that the world’s oceans will hold one kilogram of plastic for every three kilograms of fish. As bad as it sounds, if we continue as we are, the ratio will be one to one by the year 2050.

“More has to be done to face this problem. If we don’t act now, plastic won’t just be in the ecosystem, it will become an increasingly dominant feature of the ecosystem. We need to find ways to protect the oceans as soon as we can.”

– Kristian Parker, Trustee of the Environment Programme

In the past 50 years, the use of plastic has increased twentyfold, and according to a study1 from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it is expected to double again within the next 20 years. Any one of us can see how ubiquitous plastic use has become. Glass milk bottles have been replaced with disposable plastic containers. Soft drinks and water are sold in PET bottles, readily available in every shop, supermarket and petrol station. Plastic plates and cutlery replace porcelain and metal at fast food restaurants. We use plastic to make office equipment, home furniture, technology, footwear and clothing. Supermarket food is wrapped in it, building materials and office supplies are covered in it, and much of it, sadly, is designed to be disposed of after just one use.

This amounted to 311 million tonnes of plastic being produced in 2014 alone, fueling a massive industry. In 2013 the European plastics industry had a turn- over of EUR 320 billion. Only 14 per cent of all plastic is being put into a place where it can be recycled or reused, and of that percentage, only 78 per cent actually ends up being recovered. So in reality, most of the plastic being produced each year is thrown away. This does not make any sense, including financially: according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, between USD 70 and 120 billion is lost each year when plastic is simply discarded. And, although the usefulness of plastic wrapping expires as soon as it is removed, the material itself lives on for centuries in landfills and oceans, leaching harmful toxins into the environment, or else is burned in incinerators, further polluting the atmosphere.

“This is not sustainable,” says Stephen Campbell, programme officer of the Environment Programme. “What is needed is radical transformation – and the implementation of deep systemic change at all levels.”

It is clear that the system is not working, and indeed, is causing an environmental catastrophe. Without doubt, a continued increase in the use of plastic will become an overwhelming ecological problem for ecosystems, coastal communities, cities, fishermen and the tourism industry. But what will it take to implement change in a way that the economy remains strong, and at the same time our health and the environment are protected?

The good news is that the start of widespread, systemic change is in sight. From the banning of Styrofoam, plastic bottles and bags in some cities, to the adoption of organic, compostable materials for packaging, we are seeing the dawn of a disruptive shift. Oak believes passionately in supporting this new momentum.

Circular economy

Unlike the current economic model, which is based on a “consume-and-throw-away” pattern, a circular economy is based on sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling. It sees all materials as valuable and recoverable, with waste reduced to a minimum. Oak is investing in the Ellen MacArthur’s New Plastics Economy, which works to apply circular economy principles to global plastic packaging supply chains. It aims to create an effective after-use plastics economy and to drastically reduce the leakage of plastics into natural systems.

In December 2015, the European Commission presented a new circular economy package. The package contains an action plan for the circular economy and four legislative proposals on waste pertaining to landfill, reuse and recycling to be met by 2030. If our European politicians march bravely forward with this action plan, this measure could become the international gold standard for meeting the plastics crisis.

Designing for recovery

Photo: © Story of Stuff

There are calls to better design plastic in intelligent ways that incentivise its reuse so that plastic will never again end up in rivers, oceans, incinerators or landfills. Dr Martin Stuchtey from the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment is confident that putting systems in place that reuse plastic on a large scale could “spark a major wave of innovation with benefits for the entire supply chain.

For one thing it would create jobs, with people hired to collect, sort and redistribute the reusable packaging. “Packaging can be done in such a way that it is not just immediately taken off and disposed of,” says Leonardo Lacerda, director of Oak’s Environment Programme. “It can be made of standardised and less toxic materials, which means that it lasts for years and can be repeatedly reused.”

Plastic is also an environmental justice issue. Much of the volume and impacts of plastic leakage into the environment occurs in the global south, while the decisions about design, branding, materials and recovery are made in board rooms and legislatures in the global north. It is not just a problem of ‘litter’. It is a problem where major multi-national corporations are privatising the profits of the system while externalising the costs of the waste.

Banning microbeads

Resistance to the misuse of plastics is starting to increase worldwide. People are campaigning against it and searching for alternatives. In many countries today, a fee is imposed on plastic bags in shops and many consumers have embraced the initiative to reuse bags they have at home instead.

In addition, some not-for-profit organisations are putting pressure on western brands to be more accountable for the products they sell. For example, the Story of Stuff (an Oak-supported organisation based in San Francisco, the United States) was one of the key players working to ban microbeads. Microbeads are widely used in cosmetics such as facial scrubs, toothpastes and shampoos. Being so tiny, they are designed to slip easily down drains. They head straight to our rivers and oceans, absorbing toxins in the water as they go.

Thanks to the work of the Story of Stuff and others, the US has agreed to ban the production of personal care products and cosmetics containing plastic microbeads from July 2017. “This is one example of a great success story,” says Stiv Wilson, campaign director at the Story of Stuff. “Indeed, companies have a huge role to play in finding alternatives to plastic that are benign to the environment. They need to be held responsible.”

Zero waste

A successful example of a zero waste city is San Fernando in the Philippines, where many of the beaches were full of plastic waste. Mother Earth Foundation was instrumental in supporting the government to implement the Republic Waste Act 9003 in the city.

Up till the enactment of the Waste Act, there was so much rubbish in San Fernando City that vacant lots were being turned into dump sites. However, today household waste is properly separated and organics, which make up almost half of San Fernando’s waste, are returned to the soil. Recyclables like bottles, plastics, carton, metal and paper are sold to junk shops, adding to the city’s income. What is left over makes up only 10 per cent of the city’s total generated rubbish, massively reducing the need for landfills.

“San Fernando City has proven that for proper ecological waste management, local government units do not need expensive, high-tech and harmful waste disposal facilities like landfills and incinerators,” says Sonia Mendoza, chairman of Mother Earth Foundation Philippines.

Is it impossible to imagine that a zero-waste disposal system could be implemented in every city around the world? “Not at all,” says Leonardo Lacerda. “If it can be done in one of the most polluted cities in the world, it proves that it can be done anywhere.”

However if a new plastics economy is to work, businesses, policymakers, students, educators, academics, designers, citizens and industries need to get on board towards transitioning to a new system. “There is a lot to be done,” says Leonardo. “Change on a systemic scale is not going to happen overnight.”

“Zero-waste cities need to make corporate organisations responsible for the damage they are causing to our environment,” says Stephen Campbell. “They need to start redesigning products so that they’re not toxic for people and simultaneously reduce the amount they produce.”

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives

“Addressing plastic pollution is necessary for ecosystems and for health and justice. Our members are driving local solutions that reduce plastic pollution and have other significant benefits,” says Christie Keith from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), a worldwide alliance of organisations based in the Philippines working towards a zero-waste planet. “We believe that a zero-waste approach to managing resources addresses greenhouse gas, protects human health and dramatically reduces demand on natural resources.”

GAIA’s global zero-waste initiative includes work in Asia, where plastics industry trade groups promote the expansion of incineration under the guise of “green energy”. It is also working to strengthen European Union waste legislation.  In addition, members of GAIA’s network collaborate with cities committed to sustainability and environmental justice by setting zero-waste goals. These include Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, the state of Kerala in India and San Francisco in the United States.

“Zero waste is a revolution in the relationship between waste and people. It is a new way of thinking that aims to safeguard health and improve the lives of everyone,” says Christie.

“The work of GAIA is key in reducing waste around the world,” says Stephen Campbell. “Oak Foundation is proud to be supporting GAIA and their critical global network.”

Going forward

The plastic crisis in the oceans is just a symptom of a global illness – the unsustainable machinery of the current system of getting goods to market. By working with partners around the world, Oak is hopeful that the social license of corporations to use nature as a waste dump is withdrawn. In addition, we hope that the current ways of managing waste will start to be seen as culturally unacceptable, and eventually become obsolete. Collectively speaking, we can- not build a sustainable and happy world for future generations unless we find ways for our economy to live in harmony with the environment.

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report 2016