An environmental group that wrote a landmark report in 2015 saying that most of the world's ocean plastic comes from a handful of Asian countries now says at the time it underplayed the contributions of developed nations and has apologized and withdrawn the research.
Ocean Conservancy said in a July 10 statement that its Stemming the Tide report in 2015 also was wrong in including incineration and waste-to-energy as potential solutions to ocean plastic waste.
"In Stemming the Tide, Ocean Conservancy focused solely on minimizing the amount of plastics entering the ocean. We investigated and included incineration and waste-to-energy as acceptable solutions to the ocean plastic crisis, which was wrong," the Washington-based group said.
It said it removed the report from its website and instead advocates for reducing virgin plastic production, as well as increasing recycling and waste management.
"Further, by focusing so narrowly on one region of the world [East and Southeast Asia], we created a narrative about who is responsible for the ocean plastic pollution crisis — one that failed to acknowledge the outsized role that developed countries, especially the United States, have played and continue to play in generating and exporting plastic waste to this very region," it said. "This too was wrong."
OC said its 2015 report was based on a groundbreaking February 2015 study in the journal Science, from professors Jenna Jambeck, Kara Lavender Law and others, that was the first to estimate how much plastic waste was getting into the ocean.
That Jambeck and Law study argued that five Asian nations — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — with poor waste management account for more than half of the plastic in the ocean.
But in 2020, Jambeck and Law backed away from their earlier work, issuing a new study that recalculated based on exported waste flows. The new study concluded that, when the origin of the packaging was taken into account, developed nations like the U.S. were much larger sources of ocean plastic.
It said the U.S., for example, was 4 percent of the world's population but generated 17 percent of its plastic waste in 2016, and in the adjusted rankings went from No. 20 among sources of ocean plastic to potentially land at third place.
Law said in a news conference in 2020 that people should no longer describe those five Asian countries as the top sources.
The narrative from the 2015 study has been prominent. An EPA report in 2019 included it, and it has been cited in Congressional testimony and industry comments.
But Ocean Conservancy is saying now that its 2015 Stemming the Tide report did not frame the issue correctly.
"We apologize for the framing of this report and unequivocally rescind any direct or indirect endorsement of incineration as a solution to ocean plastic pollution," it said.
OC said the 2015 work "failed to confront the root causes of plastic waste" or look at the most-impacted communities, and also "did not consider how these technologies support continued demand for plastic production and hamper the move to a circular economy and a zero-carbon future."
OC also said in its July 10 statement that it does not support chemical recycling technology.
The 2015 OC report was praised at the time by plastics industry companies, including Dow Chemical Co., for helping to identify solutions to ocean plastic problems, although other environmental groups at the time were critical of the report and noted that Dow and the American Chemistry Council sat on its steering committee.
A staff member of another environmental group, Break Free From Plastic, said on Twitter that the new Ocean Conservancy announcement was significant because the message behind the 2015 report prompted other groups to start organizing to counter it, led by people in Southeast Asia.
"This is big," wrote Delphine Lévi Alvarès, its European coordinator. "The damaging narrative of this report, blaming people in [the] Global South, rather than looking at the real responsible, FMCGs making profit without taking responsibility in preventing/managing pollution & Global North countries exporting their waste, triggered NGOs to come together. … Today, they are apologizing."