No time to waste in solving ocean plastic dilemma

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It feels like we could all use some good news, so how about this:

We already have the capabilities to reduce ocean plastic waste by about 80% by 2040.

That jolt of positivity comes from Breaking the Plastic Wave, a newly issued report by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ and thought partners – the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Common Seas.

The analysis has been endorsed by some heavy hitters, including Dame Ellen MacArthur herself, PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Ramon Laguarta, UN under-secretary-general and executive director Inger Andersen, as well as the World Bank’s vice president for sustainable development, Laura Tuck.

While the document is 78 pages long, reading it is easy as it does an excellent job of breaking down information into digestible chunks, as well as the excellent infographic here:

Of particular note is that the group’s studies found that we already have at our fingertips the ability to make a huge impact on the ocean waste problem. From the study: “… if the world were to apply and robustly invest in all the technologies, management practices, and policy approaches currently available — including reduction, recycling and plastic substitution — in 20 years there would be about an 80 percent reduction from the current trajectory in the flow of plastic into the ocean. And the new solutions recommended in this report would provide consumers with the same services that plastic delivers today—at a lower cost to society.”

Conducting business as usual would bring about risks for both business and the planet’s health, the group said. Businesses would face $100bn in annual financial risk if governments require them to cover waste management costs in such a scenario, while the annual flow of plastic into the ocean could triple by 2040 if current trajectory rates are maintained.

Brand owners have been pushing from the bottom of the supply chain up to increase recycling and sustainability measures, but current efforts from the supply chain, government regulations and other means fall far short of what is needed, the group said. If every current commitment towards reducing the rate of plastic flowing into the ocean was kept, it would only amount to a 7% rate drop, according to their analysis.

Further, the group has a statement that is downright chilling if you have plans to build a new polymer plant: “Governments and investors also need to curtail the planned expansion in plastic production capacity to prevent locking us deeper into the status quo.”

But we are talking about good news, so let’s keep with that. The analysis points to the business opportunities that would arise from creating true circularity in the plastics chain and eschewing the age-old linear model. Shaping a sustainable model does not mean you get rid of every bit of virgin plastics production – far from that. But it does require innovation in designing products for the ease of recycling. It does require expanding waste collection rates in low- and middle-income countries, as well as doubling mechanical recycling capacity. And it does require a proper way to deal with those plastic materials that right now cannot be recycled, because having them find their way into the ocean should not be an option going forward.

The chemical business was built on innovation, and it continues to find new ways to make and shape molecules. The plastics supply chain was borne of that and shares that same spirit. It is the drive to create solutions which benefit business and society that helped shape the 20th century, and surely it can do so in the 21st.

The ocean plastic pollution problem took a lifetime to create but could be solved in a generation, the Pew/SYSTEMIQ report posits. Wouldn’t that be good news to see in our lifetime?

Disclaimer: The views in this blogpost should in no shape or form be taken as actual forecasts and are my personal views only.

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