DALLAS — Private companies are going to have to step up to the plate and open their wallets if the world ever wants to solve the growing problem of plastic waste flowing into the oceans, according to one man who has studied the issues for years.
Governments in developing countries around the world have just too many other priorities ahead of this issue to really make a difference, said Ted Siegler, a partner at DSM Environmental Services Inc., an environmental consulting firm.
Siegler recently was a co-author of a Science magazine article that shined a light on the land-based plastics that end up in oceans, and he shared some insight at the Plastics Recycling 2015 conference in Dallas Feb. 25.
“I don't think that local governments or national governments are going to solve this problem. I think there is only one way to solve this problem and it's essentially for people who are using and producing the plastic products to step up to the plate and solve this problem as they see fit,” he said.
Multi-national consumer products companies that have great reach and a high-recognition among the world's population can use that breadth to work toward a solution, Siegler said.
“We can't expect many developing countries with high population growth to prioritize solid waste management when they are faced with so many other insurmountable problems,” he said.
Clean water, sewage treatment, air quality, electrical power, roads and bridges, medical service and education all are much bigger priorities for countries that already have limited resources, he said.
“Industry, in collaboration with civil society and governments, must play a significant role in financing and implementing locally appropriate waste management and plastic recovery systems,” Siegler said.
One problem, he said, is that growth of the use of plastics has outpaced the development of waste management practices around the world, including efforts to manage used plastics.
The end result is this: an estimated 4.8 million to 12.7 metric tons of plastic are entering oceans each and every year. That compares to about 275 million metric tons of plastic waste generated in 2010.
“Just to put that in perspective, because I'm sure we would be very angry if somebody simply dumped a million automobiles into the ocean every year, we would be outraged by that. And yet, this is really what we believe is happening with plastics,” Siegler said.
“We are putting more plastic into the ocean than we are taking tuna out every year right now. These are just from land-based sources alone. A lot of plastics,” he said.
There's currently about 130 million tons of plastic in the oceans, which has accumulated over time, but research suggests that number could increase to 250 million tons by 2025, Siegler said.
“That's a lot, even in the ocean,” he said, adding that numbers presented in the article and the conference are estimates designed to further a dialogue about the issue and create solutions.
“I don't think this is the last word. What we are all saying is this is our best estimate. And we'd be happy to have people start shooting holes in it and trying to figure out what's next. But it needed to get out there because there was no estimate before,” Siegler said.
The environmental consultant said the problem, while daunting, is actually easy to fix provided that resources are devoted to issue.
“It's not rocket science to solve. This is actually a pretty easy problem to solve. We all know how to collect plastic waste. We all know how to manage it. We all know how to recycle it. It's a question of funding a logical investment to bend this curve and make a difference,” he said.
The United States is estimated to be No. 20 in terms of plastic ocean pollution, Siegler told the audience.
Solutions in the United States, he said, include increasing the opportunities to recycle while away from home. “It can't be a resource when we recycle at home and a waste when we're outside of the home,” he said. “If I had my dream, there would be a blue recycling container next to every litter container in every public space in the United States.
The country also has to do a better job of recycling food service packaging, as well as plastic film. Recycling more spent fishery, aquaculture and agriculture plastics also will help, he said.