In advance of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi that was held from the 4th to the 6th of December, UN Oceans Chief Lisa Svensson warned that plastic waste has caused large-scale damage to our oceans, and called on governments, corporations, and individuals to be far more proactive in containing plastic pollution. Speaking to BBC News, Svensson said, “This is a planetary crisis. In a few short decades since we discovered the convenience of plastics, we are ruining the ecosystem of the ocean.”
The dangers of plastic in our oceans has long been known, and a crisis dubbed “the plastic apocalypse” is looming in our future – but there are good reasons to be optimistic about a solution.
Plastic does not biodegrade for hundreds of years, which means that every piece of plastic created by humans – approximately 8.3 billion metric tons, nearly all within the last century – still exists on the planet. Globally, humans produced 343 million tons of plastic in 2014, and only 10% of it was recycled. Scientists estimate that 8.8 million tons of unrecycled plastic find their way to the earth’s oceans every year, and that number is increasing, not decreasing.
Plastic in the form of bags, food containers and lids, bottles, straws, packaging, and disposable plates and cutlery are just some of the items that are used once and tossed into the trash. Some states, like California, have outlawed single-use plastic bags, but grocery bags are a small part of the problem. In addition, some US states, specifically Arizona, Idaho, and Missouri, rather than following California’s example, have passed legislation explicitly prohibiting regulation of plastic bags.
However, the US does recycle about 28% of its plastic – not enough, certainly, but more than many smaller economies manage. The top five plastic-polluting countries are China, with 9 million metric tonnes per year, Indonesia with about 3.2, followed by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.
There is no international law against dumping plastic in the ocean, and plastic pollution does not recognize international borders. The delegates at the UN summit called for stronger action to be taken on plastic dumping globally, asking governments to consider a treaty to prevent plastic waste from entering the ocean. Once there, plastic breaks down into smaller pieces – but does not biodegrade – and wildlife eat the plastic, which often proves fatal. Unconsumed plastic aggregates to form floating garbage islands, known as gyres, which occupy up to 40% of the ocean’s surface, according to Charles J. Moore, writing in the New York Times.
The fact that developed consumer economies such as the US have a better handle on their plastic pollution is reason for hope, and technological innovations offer possible solutions to repair the damage already done. The Marine Drone, invented by industrial design student Elie Ahovi, is an automated plastic-collection marine vehicle that traps plastic in a net while ensuring the safety of ocean life as it works. Another organization, called The Ocean Cleanup, founded by 19-year-old Boyan Slat, uses natural ocean currents to passively transport plastic waste to a collection point.
Finally, it is important to recognize that we can manage our plastic waste with little more effort than we expend now. All countries need to accept and implement basic plastic management, with the greatest changes coming from the greatest polluters, like China and Indonesia. Recycling rates can be improved in all countries simply by making recycling easier to accomplish. Companies and manufacturers can re-evaluate their packaging policies to use more biodegradable materials. These changes do not need to have a major impact on the economy, and they do not require any large-scale technical innovations beyond what has already been developed. Preventing the plastic apocalypse is largely a question of political, industrial, and personal commitment.