Solving ocean crises by unifying and empowering global communities!sm

Title search:

Progress on ocean plastic is slow, but some solutions are gaining ground

Plastics Sustainability.png

Image credit: Plastics News/Rich Williams

A brief history of the rise of ocean plastic

Understanding the evolution of the ocean plastic crisis is important to understand where we stand today and how the evolution to a plastic-free ocean might unfold. OpenOceans Global checked resources from the Science History Institute, along with information from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to assemble some background on the history. Here are some key facts:

  • The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 in response to a $100,000 challenge to anyone who could create a substitute for ivory, replacing the need to kill wild elephants to create products like pool balls.
  • In 1907, the first synthetic plastic was created, in the form of Bakelite, first used as an insulating material. It was “durable, heat-resistant, and ideally suited for mechanical mass production.”It could be “shaped or molded into almost anything.”
  • During World War II, plastic use grew by 300% to make products that otherwise would need to be made from scarce natural resources.
  • Following the war, plastic began to take the place of traditional materials, including steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.
  • Plastic was seen as an inexpensive, safe, sanitary substance that could be shaped by humans to their every whim.
  • Plastic debris was first observed in the oceans in the 1960s.
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, anxiety about waste increased, and the plastics industry led an influential drive encouraging municipalities to collect and process recyclable materials as part of their waste management systems.
  • Between the 1970s and the 1990s, plastic waste generation more than tripled, reflecting a similar rise in plastic production.
  • In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years.

A high-level take on the status of the ocean plastic crisis

Where does that leave us - a world with a seemingly insatiable demand for the convenience and low cost of plastic and a demonstrated lack of success in replacing, reusing, recycling, and managing plastic waste?

OECD Recycling Chart.png

Image credit: OECD Global Plastic Outlook Database

As you can see from the chart above from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there are only three ways to dispose of plastic waste: put it in a landfill, incinerate it, or recycle or reuse it. The rest is mismanaged and uncollected litter, often trashing the world’s environment both on land and at sea. Here’s a high-level take on where we are today.

The Bad

Despite efforts to address plastic waste going back at least 40 years, it is still a growing crisis. Some factoids:

  • Plastic waste has dramatically increased. The UN says 400 million metric tons of plastic waste are produced every year, and the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that plastic will increase from 11 million metric tons annually in 2020 to 29 MT in 2040.
  • Waste management is still lacking globally. According to Visual Capitalist, India, China, and the Philippines lead the world in the most mismanaged plastic waste, with the Philippines alone accounting for 350,000 tons, or 37%, of mismanaged waste released into the ocean annually.
  • Recycling success is limited. Despite more than 40 years of messaging, only 9% of all plastic produced has been recycled, and 22% of plastic is mismanaged, according to the OECD.

The Good

Here are some examples of where progress is being made.

  • International Plastic Treaty is a UN priority. The United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2022 made it a priority to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024 addressing the full lifecycle of plastic from source to sea.
  • Solutions are emerging. All around the world, sometimes in the most unexpected places, entrepreneurs are working on solutions to expand the ability to collect, reuse, recycle, replace, and even transform plastic. We feature some of the people and the solutions each month in this newsletter, and more solutions are on our website.
  • River interception is gaining ground. Since most plastic reaches the ocean from rivers, it is encouraging to see technologies and processes emerging to capture the plastic before it reaches the ocean. Two notable efforts are the Sungai Watch in Indonesia which is currently cleaning 100 rivers and The Ocean Cleanup’s River Interceptor which is being tested in multiple locations around the globe.
  • PET plastic is highly recyclable. The most successful recycling effort has been achieved through polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic which, according to the International Bottled Water Association, is 100 % recyclable and is the most recycled plastic in the worldwide. It is primarily reused (or used as feedstock) for plastic bottles and food containers. Norway and India, most notably, have met or exceeded recycling 90% of PET plastic. According to a paper published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), PET packaging accounted for 44.7% of single-serve beverage packaging in the US in 2021, and 12% of global solid waste.
  • Mismanaged waste in the U.S. and the EU. Even though the U.S. and the European Union are leaders in producing plastic waste, relatively little is mismanaged, according to the OECD. The chart below shows comparisons from around the world.

US China Plastic Waste.png

Image credit: UN Council on Foreign Relations/OECD

Still Trying

A number of efforts to address ocean plastic are aspirational and haven’t met the goals desired, others are in progress but not ready for prime time, and some are controversial.

  • Plastic campaigns. According to the U.N. Council on Foreign Relations, initiatives like the UNEP’s Clean Seas Campaign and the 2020 World Trade Organization (WTO) initiative to promote a circular economy for plastics have had limited impact on plastic waste.
  • Recycling Goals. According to Plastics News, in 2018, resin supplier members of the American Chemistry Council announced a goal of "reusing, recycling or recovering all plastics packaging by 2040.” The following year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation accelerated the timeline with a goal for retailers to increase recycled content in their packaging to 25% by 2025. The global average at that time was 2%. The year after that, the U.S. Plastics Pact set a goal for recycling or composting 50% of plastic packaging by 2025 and using 30% recycled or bio-based content in plastics packaging. Plastics News writes “we aren't anywhere close to achieving these goals.”
  • Bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are being explored. Bioplastics, made from plant crops instead of fossil fuels, are thought to be more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. However, some bioplastics also take a long time to degrade in the environment. According to an opinion in PHYS.ORG, “bioplastics aren't ready for prime time … we don't have widely available pathways to compost or process them at the end of their lives. Nearly always, they end up in a landfill.”
  • Chemical recycling. As reported by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, the European Union defines chemical recycling as “when plastics are converted into liquids or gas through pyrolysis, gasification, or other methods of heating, and then are recycled into new plastics.” A number of technologies are being developed, according to Chemical Recycling Europe, concluding “it is not a recycling solution which has been fully scaled yet.” In addition, “The EU notes that plastic-to-plastic chemical recycling is extremely energy-intensive, costly, and ultimately, does not stop plastic pollution at its source."
  • Aligning regulations across state and national boundaries. Challenges to improving the circularity of plastic often involve different regulations to address manufacturing, disposal, and recycling. In comments by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organization (APCO) to the United Nations regarding proposed objectives for the international plastic treaty, APCO wrote this: “Define clear global guidelines on the responsibility for plastic packaging, including design, distribution and responsible end-of-life management to reduce packaging impact on human life, environment, particularly marine environment, and national economies. The instrument outlines mandatory and voluntary approaches to address different country’s capacities, economic abilities, and environmental urgencies.”

More to know and more to do – together

There is much more to report than summarized above, and OpenOceans Global hopes this information will encourage additional thinking in understanding the real status of the ocean plastic crisis and efforts to address this environmental disaster. Working together, from a factual foundation, we can make a difference.



Share Category "Trash and Plastics":

Please support our efforts, donate today!