Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Turning the Tide on Ocean Plastics: Role of the Circular Economy

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Like many, I read with dismay the recent reports from the western Caribbean that described the presence of a floating mass of discarded plastic waste - a new plastic island. While smaller than the gigantic Pacific Ocean "plastic islands" (the most recently discovered patch in the South Pacific is estimated to be on the scale of 1 Million square miles) this Caribbean trash heap threatened to inundate the shores of the Honduran island of Roatan, that measures 3 miles wide and 12 miles long. This mass of material, apparently washed out to sea by a Guatemalan river, contained an assortment of plastic items, from shoes and slippers to utensils and food containers, to even a television. This kind of contamination is not rare, as seen in the National Geographic video below.

These scenes came to mind in my recent travels elsewhere in the Caribbean. While attending an event in a rural village, I searched in vain for a place to recycle a plastic drink bottle and was told that there was no collection of recyclable materials in this community, and precious little even in the capital city. I stared at the pile of cases of beverages stocked up for the event and could only wonder how many would make their way to the ocean to join the "island" off Honduras, or another just like it. Plastic recycling has never met its global potential with only 9-14% of used plastics making its way back into the value stream. One recent challenge is that low oil prices push down the demand for recycled plastics, as it can be cheaper to produce new resins than to recycle waste material.

This man-made issue poses a threat to many forms of marine life and to our own health. While not biodegradable, many plastics weaken under prolonged exposure to sunlight and eventually break down into small particles called microplastics, which can enter the food stream. According to some estimates, the vast majority of seabirds have ingested microplastics and there is no telling how much contamination is in the seafood that makes its way to our plates (for more details, see Forbes article And the trajectory is not positive. According to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen McArthur Foundation, by 2050 plastics production is expected to triple from 2014 levels, while consuming up to 20% of global oil production ( By that time, it is expected that there will be as much plastic in our oceans as fish, by weight.

So, what needs to be done to address this critical situation? How do we reverse the tide of plastics ending up in our global waters? The World Economic Forum /Ellen McArthur Foundation report describes how principles of the Circular Economy can address this growing crisis, outlining three key imperatives:
  1. Creation of an effective "after-use" plastics economy
  2. Drastic reduction of "leakage" of plastics into natural systems (including oceans) and
  3. Innovation in virgin plastics production to decouple it from fossil fuel usage.
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There are many avenues for us as individuals to impact leakage into natural systems, from our consumption patterns and choices to our recycling habits. The scientific community is engaged in ongoing development of plastics from non-traditional sources. The idea of a new plastics economy is one that could create new opportunities for innovative companies. Beyond technical innovations, the report outlines 4 additional levers that could enable value capture in the roughly $100 Billion materials market. The five levers are:

  1. Mechanism for dialog
  2. Global plastics protocol
  3. Development of secondary markets
  4. Technological innovation and
  5. Development of enabling policies

The time is now for us take rethinking of plastics use and reuse to a new level... our oceans depend on it.

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