Environment & Energy Report

INSIGHT: Marine Litter Problem is Solvable With a Little Help

June 10, 2019, 10:31 AM

More than 50 years ago in the movie “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire told Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, that “there’s a great future in plastics.”

Today it’s impossible to imagine modern life without plastics. In our cars, our fashion, our homes, our appliances, our food packaging, plastics bring countless benefits to our everyday lives.

Plastic packaged food lasts longer, reducing waste; use of plastic in pipes facilitates clean drinking water supplies; plastic enables life-saving medical devices such as surgical equipment and drips; and due to its light weight, plastic use in vehicles has reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

Unfortunately, in some regions, growing demand for consumer goods has outpaced the infrastructure needed to manage used materials of all kinds, including plastics. Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters our ocean each year—the equivalent of a New York City dump truck emptying its contents into the ocean every minute.

To stem the tide of waste flowing into our ocean, we need to start with the mismanaged waste on land, where likely over 80% of marine debris originates. Everyone agrees that plastic waste doesn’t belong in the ocean. Yet there isn’t agreement on the best way to prevent it from getting there.

Plastic Bag Bans

Some call for banning specific plastics products.

However, as outlined in a recent story on NPR, scientific studies show that bans on plastic bags often have unintended consequences and can result in worse environmental outcomes, such as increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

A study by Trucost, an S&P Global-affiliated sustainability risk assessment firm, found that plastics actually reduce environmental costs by nearly four times compared to alternatives.

But there are solutions to address plastic waste.

Improving waste management in pivotal countries in the Asia-Pacific region could halve the flow of plastic into the environment. Effective waste management also has broader public health and economic development benefits. Research by the World Bank suggests that the cost of investing in sustainable waste management is dwarfed by the cost of poor waste management.

Furthermore, while commonly viewed as trash, plastic litter entering the ocean still retains financial value. Marine litter both pollutes the environment and wastes a valuable resource. We need systems that can help recover that value.

Cross-Sector Solutions

Fortunately, groups such as the Trash Free Seas Alliance are uniting industry, science, and conservation leaders to develop cross-sector solutions to realize the hidden value of plastic waste. Industry stakeholders across the plastics value chain earlier this year launched the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and have committed $1.5 billion over five years to finance infrastructure, education, innovation, and cleanup efforts to keep plastic waste out of the environment.

Will that be enough? The short answer is no. Which is why groups like Circulate Capital, are also working to demonstrate the investment value of the waste and recycling sectors to attract the billions more needed to scale up integrated recycling and waste management companies and infrastructure where it is needed most.

We will also need to deploy new technologies. Plastics-to-fuel technologies may help small island states, where issues of scale limit utility of other fuel sources, and developing countries when access to clean fuel is limited. Chemical recycling technology provides new options for materials that were previously unrecyclable, as well as providing virgin material alternatives in manufacturing new polymers.

Engaging the private sector and particularly new financial institutions in waste management processes is the key to these efforts.

Financing Mechanisms

New financing mechanisms such as blended capital arrangements, which can include investors from foundations, NGOs, impact investors, commercial investors, and governments, can help. These types of arrangements can distribute risk appropriately between the public and private sectors and mobilize much needed private capital that would otherwise stay on the sidelines.

We need to convene these stakeholders and establish the political, economic and legal/regulatory conditions to provide incentives for investing in waste management.

As G20 chair, Japan is expected to include the issue of marine litter at the G20 Energy and Environment ministerial meeting and G20 Summit later this month.

As the host this year of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation—an organization of 21 Asian and Pacific rim countries that operates as a cooperative, multilateral economic and trade forum—Chile has identified marine litter as a top priority to be addressed at the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in November, 2019.

Japan and Chile should be congratulated for making marine debris a priority, because the ocean can’t wait.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Ryan MacFarlane, Ph.D. is coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Virtual Working Group on Marine Debris and a director at Crowell & Moring International LLC.