China's plastics industry is working on standards for classifying marine plastic waste, seeing it as a way to better contain, manage and recycle the materials.
The effort involves several Chinese trade associations, global plastics and consumer products companies, recyclers and nongovernmental organizations and hopes to develop a standard that can be adopted globally.
"One of the biggest problems is that there is still no clear definition of marine plastics," said Wang Jun, secretary-general of the China Plastics Sustainable Development Association. "Without a definition of the different types of marine plastic, there is no way to deal with it."
China has been identified in studies by Ocean Conservancy and others as the single largest source of ocean plastics litter. Committee members said they see their work as building on government efforts to clean up the country by collecting and sorting more recyclables domestically and limiting imports of dirty scrap materials.
The Chinese marine waste effort includes participation from global plastics suppliers Borouge Pte Ltd. and BASF SE, as well as Starbucks Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Nestle and Procter & Gamble Co.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Chinese firms Winsun Recycling and Weirun Advanced Materials are also part of it. The group met in late August in an online session.
Wang Wang, executive vice president of the China Plastics Reuse and Recycling Association, said having a standard will help the industry tackle both collection and recycling challenges.
"Solving plastic pollution is a complex social problem," he said. "It's going to need a combination of policy, technology, commerce, and finance to solve. … We'll work with brands, polymer companies, plastic recycling companies, research institutions and nonprofits to complete this seemingly impossible task."
He said the group wants to work quickly, possibly finalizing its definitions within a month.
The committee is basing its work on a proposal from the China Sustainable Plastics Association.
That classification includes separate categories for in-the-ocean plastics, near-shore materials, high-seas plastics like those found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as well as materials on the ocean floor — both close to shore and at sea — and ocean-bound plastics that can be found on beaches or near waterways.
Wang said the Chinese committee is looking for feedback from other groups globally.
"Our main goal is to solve this problem of plastic waste," Wang said. "That's why we're doing this work."
The committee wants to work on certifying its definition internationally. Wang said he hopes other groups globally, like the Association of Plastic Recyclers in the United States and the Plastics Recyclers Europe trade association, will work to promote the standard.
China, which is the world's largest producer and exporter of plastic products, reportedly dumped 200 million cubic meters of waste, much of it plastic, in the ocean in 2018. Globally, between 4 million and 12 million metric tons of waste plastic are estimated to enter the ocean each year.
Committee members said they see the marine plastic standards as the next step for the country, following programs to build more domestic recyclables collection and limit imports of overseas scrap materials.
Last year, the country rolled out a Zero Waste City initiative in 18 metropolitan areas to sort materials. As well, China began limited imports of scrap plastic and other materials in 2013 with the Green Fence program and significantly toughened that with its National Sword and Blue Sky policies starting in 2017.