Last year's unprecedented global war against plastic can be traced to various sources — public outrage over microbeads; excruciating images from Blue Planet II of dead, plastic-choked albatrosses — but the collective cognitive shift, as Stephen Buranyi noted in The Guardian, is clear: "We used to see [plastic] as litter — a nuisance but not a menace. That idea has been undermined by the recent widespread acknowledgment that plastic is far more pervasive and sinister than most people had ever imagined."
This "widespread acknowledgment" of plastic's reach has prompted a spate of sustainability gestures from across the waste industry — including at last week's SWANApalooza conference in Boston, which dedicated a keynote session to the future of marine litter education, research and funding.
Allusions to the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" evoke images of a giant island of floating trash — but, as oceanographer Kara Lavender Law pointed out during the session, the reality of marine debris is far more nebulous. According to Law, a research professor at the Sea Education Association, our understanding of the sources, distribution and transformation of ocean plastics remains incomplete — and without more refined estimates, it's impossible to gauge the full extent and impact of plastic pollution.
"There are a lot of scientific gaps — where in the ocean is all of our plastic waste?" Law asked. "On the solutions side, plastic waste coming into the ocean from land is a place to focus, and a lot of work has to be done to understand specific pathways — how much plastic is entering the ocean, specific entryways and how we might stop it."
Investing in solutions
"When you start talking solutions, the million dollar question — or, in this case, the multi-billion dollar question — is 'where is the funding going to come from?'" said April Crow, a principal and consultant at Circulate Capital.
The answer, according to Crow, lies in large-scale investment from capital markets. Innovative and scalable solutions to plastic waste must be backed by risk-tolerant investors eager to view the problem as a revenue opportunity — and with ocean plastics adding up to $13 billion worth of damages annually, and the economy forfeiting another $80 billion per year on unrecovered plastic packaging, there's plenty of financial ground to seize.
While the scale of the problem seems daunting, Crow maintained that concrete gains are within reach — research shows a 45% global reduction in plastic leakage to waterways can be achieved through improved waste management and recycling in the world's five "leakiest" countries: India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. Transforming the global plastic packaging market, she said, requires a "suite of solutions" — from public policy and corporate commitments to financial incentives and changes in human behavior — as well as focus on three key areas: 50% recycling, 30% redesign and 20% reuse.
Chris Cui, director of China Programs at Closed Loop Partners, also framed plastic waste as an untapped resource, noting that China and the U.S. lose out on $230 billion of potential market value per year from unrecycled plastics. She urged attendees to perceive China's National Sword policy not as a crippling force for domestic recycling, but as an opportunity for the U.S. to partner with other countries in developing enhanced recycling practices and circular economy innovations.
"Instead of worrying about commodity prices in the U.S., try to achieve a big picture understanding of what governments are thinking in China, Japan and other key markets," Cui said. "Prepare for the next generation of recycling."
While the speakers stressed the importance of capital investments and corporate sustainability commitments, they were more circumspect on the subject of legally-binding international agreements.
"We need to be careful and thoughtful with blanket policies," said Jenna Jambeck, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia. "There should be flexible global engagement on the issue — I think we're going to see a move toward that, but we need to do it in a very thoughtful way."