Plastic pollution is an issue that more Americans are paying attention to, largely due to the efforts of organizations working on the issue, and the excellent documentary film making and media coverage on the subject. It’s a fundamental Lorax-type tale. We are wrecking the oceans – and now our food, due to microplastics attracting and bio-concentrating toxic chemicals in the marine food chain – because of our addiction to cheap, plastic products and packaging, and a comprehensive global failure to steward these materials properly. A recent study revealed that 8 million tons of plastic waste flows into our oceans each year, enough to cover every foot of coastline in the world.
While there’s been a significant amount of progress and awareness-raising through the campaigns to date around plastic bags, polystyrene take-out containers, and microbeads, these efforts admittedly are not the ultimate solution. UPSTREAM believes that the fundamental problem is the lack of responsibility from consumer goods companies for the plastic pollution (and other downstream impacts) caused by their decisions, their products and their packaging – worldwide.
This issue is revealed in Technicolor through a visit to almost any developing nation in the world. The same corporations that sell 95% of what’s in between the dairy aisle to the produce aisle in US grocery stores, are now working to sell into developing markets where there is little to no solid waste, recycling or litter prevention infrastructure. Up until recently, in many of these places, “packaging” meant something organic to be tossed anywhere when finished with the product.
Now, P&G, Unilever, PepsiCo and other consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) are selling products wrapped in plastic without a second thought as to what will happen to the package when these “new customers” are finished with the product. And we see the result – Rivers of plastic. Flowing to the ocean.
Add to that what’s happening in developed countries, with infinitely more goods and services being exchanged, and the failure of these same companies to pay for the costs of proper stewardship of these plastic materials, and you have a similar, if less-pronounced, mechanism for plastic pollution further contaminating aquatic and marine environments.
So how do we solve it?
To date, the discussions have focused on two strategies 1) cleaning the oceans of debris and 2) preventing the pollution in the first place. Many people around the world were distracted by the internet story of a student developing a technology to skim the plastic out of the ocean gyres. Problem solved, right? While there are number of sincere people pursuing technologies to clean the oceans, even they admit that these will do nothing if we don’t first stop the ongoing pollution at the source.
The reality is that the only sound strategies to stop plastic pollution are ones that prevent it in the first place. To use the bathtub analogy, in order to stop the tub from over-flowing, we can either try to make the tub drain faster, or we can just shut off the tap.
Real Solutions to End Plastic Pollution
In order to legitimately tackle the problem, strategies must work to stem the tide of plastic pollution in both developed and developing countries. The developed world has the resources to tackle this problem, while the developing world does not. Efforts must be made to design and export the appropriate low-cost and workable strategies from the developed world to developing countries. Furthermore, it is imperative to create funding sources to deploy strategies and technologies in the developing world to address the structural challenges which are too great for nations with few resources to address. Here’s the start of a solutions list:
- Ditch single-use-plastic. As a recent colleague who is in his 60s mentioned, “We didn’t have this problem when I was a kid. There wasn’t all this single-use disposable plastic. Everything was in glass, paper, steel or aluminum. This is a problem that’s been created in my lifetime.” Single-use disposable plastic items (SUDS) are the largest contributors to marine plastic pollution. Communities, institutions, businesses, governments and individuals can all take steps to minimize the use of SUDS, seeking reusable alternatives and ways of delivering and consuming goods and services that minimize the use of materials that have a high tendency to end up as plastic pollution.
- Ban and/or substitute the worst offenders. Through the International Coastal Cleanup day, the Ocean Conservancy captured data on the top items which make up the majority of beach litter and marine plastic pollution. It makes sense to push for the development and deployment of alternatives and new technologies to reduce or eliminate these sources of pollution. When there are readily-available alternatives or technologies at comparable cost, bans on the worst offenders are a no-brainer. These include bans on items like single-use-disposable plastic shopping bags and polystyrene take-out containers. The good news is that these are inexpensive policies to implement and can be adopted in developing and developed nations alike, with the only costs being enforcement.
In the United States, much of the energy around policies to tackle plastic pollution has stemmed from a California-based campaign known as the Clean Seas Coalition (CSC). Comprised of nearly 30 groups, including community and state groups, and national organizations, the CSC has been a remarkable force for change. Prior to the statewide California ban on single-use disposable bags, which is the coalition’s biggest success to date, they had succeeded in passing community bag and polystyrene bans for a majority of the state’s population. UPSTREAM’s board member, Leslie Tamminen, was instrumental in developing the CSC.
- Innovate to replace the worst offenders. Thanks to the growing concern about plastic pollution around the world, entrepreneurs are innovating to create biodegradable materials that can replace the worst offenders. Often the challenge is not in the creation of the materials themselves, but in getting them picked up and used by major corporations. One of UPSTREAM’s advisory board members, Daniella Russo, heads up an organization called Think Beyond Plastic, which acts as an accelerator and forum for the deployment of technologies to solve plastic pollution. A great example of a technology innovation is Ecovative’s compostable mushroom foam which can replace polystyrene for food-contact applications. While consumer goods companies and restaurant chains ultimately need to invest in these technologies, developed and developing countries, as well as local jurisdictions, can pass policies to support their widespread adoption at little to no cost.
- Scale up best practices around recycling and away-from-home collection. It’s no secret that the United States has one of the lowest recycling rates in the developed world at roughly 34% of what is generated by US households. But communities all over the United States and the world are showing how it can be done. San Francisco has reached an 80% recycling rate. Cart-based recycling and composting and the cultural support for zero waste is a model that should be exported to the world. Efforts are afoot to figure out how to utilize the remaining 20%, much of which is low-value plastics without current recycling markets. Similarly, in order to prevent plastic pollution, we need waste and recycling infrastructure when we’re away from home – in public parks, beaches and along city sidewalks. Scaling up best practices around recycling and developing away-from-home collection infrastructure is expensive and will be more challenging for the developing world to implement than the developed. As is the case in Europe and gradually more of the developed world, funding for recycling infrastructure – and outreach and education – should increasingly come from the companies that produce packaging through extended producer responsibility (EPR). Container deposits – a.k.a. “bottle bills” – are a highly successful form of EPR, which create incentives for the prevention and cleanup of litter and should be considered as a high-leverage tool to prevent plastic pollution.
- Scale up best practices around storm-water management to capture plastics before they enter the environment. Significant amounts of plastic are removed through installing and maintaining storm-water capture devices, street-sweeping and storm drain cleaning and maintenance. While these are admittedly “the last stop” before plastics enter the environment, and should not be pursued as the only approach, they are an important part of the solution especially in developed countries. The challenge is that these approaches are expensive to implement and require significant amounts of ongoing funding.
- Invest in solid-waste and recycling infrastructure in the developing world. No set of strategies to tackle plastic pollution would be complete without looking at the biggest source of plastic pollution by far – and that is the lack of solid waste, recycling and litter prevention infrastructure in the developing world.A recent comprehensive study in Science magazine lists the top 20 countries that are the major global contributors to marine plastic pollution. The United States is number 20 and is the only developed country on the list. For those of you who might want to vilify China, consider that much of the developed world’s recyclables are shipped to China for processing and use. We would argue that the largest source of marine plastic pollution has been created by the world’s major consumer goods companies – by selling goods wrapped in plastic into developing countries without a second thought as to what will happen to the package when their “new customers” are finished with the product.
Price on plastic? If ever there was an issue ripe for extended producer responsibility, it’s marine plastic pollution. I recently attended SUSTPACK – the one major US trade show devoted to sustainable packaging – and I heard Ted Siegler, a global consultant on solid waste and recycling issues, describe how a penny per pound levy on new plastics could generate $5 billion annually to pay for the creation of solid waste and recycling infrastructure in the developing world. These same companies that sell goods wrapped in plastic worldwide need to create an investment tool for the developing world to ensure that plastics are stewarded instead of ending up as pollution.
- YOUR IDEA HERE. The world needs more people to get serious about ending plastic pollution. This is a problem that has been created in the last 50 years, and it’s one that we can solve by creating a culture of stewardship around plastics – limiting their use for certain applications, innovating around the creation and deployment of marine-friendly materials, and building and maintaining the infrastructure to properly utilize them again and again for humanity’s needs, now and into the future.