WASHINGTON — That there are literally tons of plastic in the world's oceans is hardly new information, especially to the plastics industry. But now there is finally an in-depth examination of where it originates and how it ends up in the water — and an actionable plan to stop the flow of plastic trash into the oceans by 2035.
A new Ocean Conservancy report, Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies for a Plastic-Free Ocean, identifies the location-specific origins of most of the world's plastic marine debris and how it leaks into the oceans as well as outlines of practical solutions, their relevant economics, and short- and long-term plans for implementation in five priority countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
“Today's report, for the first time, outlines a specific path forward for the reduction, and ultimate elimination, of plastic waste in the oceans,” said Ocean Conservancy CEO Andreas Merkl. “The report's findings confirm what many have long thought — that ocean plastic solutions actually begin on land. It will take a coordinated effort of industry, [non-governmental organizations] and government to solve this growing economic and environmental problem.”
The report, released Sept. 30, was a multi-year effort of the Washington-based non-profit advocacy group in partnership with the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment and Trash Free Seas Alliance partners including Dow Chemical Co., Coca-Cola Co. and the American Chemistry Council.
Experts estimate 8 million tons of plastic “leaks” out of the waste system and into the watershed each year, according to the report, most coming from industrializing countries in Asia.
“These are countries where the consumption of plastic is skyrocketing and waste management is not keeping up,” Merkl said.
The report proposes a five-point solution to cutting the “leakage” from land-based sources by 45 percent by 2025 with the ultimate goal of eliminating it by 2035. The cost of meeting those goals are estimated to be about $5 billion annually, according to the report, but significant returns to the global economy are possible once the proper infrastructure is in place.
Proposed solutions include expanded service collection and ultimately increased waste collection rates; closing leakage points within the collection systems of all five countries, including targeting illegal dumping and containing legal open dump sites; implementing the latest waste-to-energy programs such as gasification or incineration with energy recovery; and improving systems to manually sort waste to extract high-value plastics for recycling and convert a significant portion of low-value plastic to refuse-derived fuel.
While the problem of marine plastics may still sound tremendously huge, some industry leaders see the new report as actually lifting some of the weight of this global problem.