Plastic-Free Oceans Require Corporate Support, Nonprofit Says

Plastic and other garbage littering a beach in Singapore. (Vaidehi Shah via Wikipedia)

(CN) – Fully addressing the massive buildup of plastic waste in the planet’s oceans requires policymakers and business leaders to talk and work together, champion British sailor and philanthropist Ellen MacArthur writes in an editorial published Thursday.

More than 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, which contributes to a loss of $80 to $120 billion per year to the world economy. If the current trend holds, there will be more plastic than fish, by weight, in oceans by 2050.

To stem this environmental crisis, public-private dialogues must center around innovation and policy design, according to MacArthur.

“A few uncommon types of plastic used in packaging are too expensive to recycle and should be phased out,” MacArthur writes, noting that only about 14 percent of all plastic packaging is recycled.

“Policymakers can connect the design of plastic packaging with its collection, sorting, and subsequent reuse, recycling or composting by supporting deposit-refund schemes for drinks bottles, as in Germany and Denmark, or by requiring producers to consider what happens to their packaging products after use.”

MacArthur, who retired from professional sailing and in 2010 established the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – which aims to accelerate the transition to the “circular economy” – points to a policy concept called extended producer responsibility (EPR) as one such approach to holding companies responsible for the full life cycle of their products.

“EPR policies have been introduced in European Union legislation and at the national level for packaging, batteries, vehicles, and electronics,” MacArthur writes. “Such policies can support good design and improve the economics of after-use options for packaging materials.”

Some companies have already begun reviewing or revising their products. MacArthur notes British-Dutch goods giant Unilever has already promised all of its plastic packaging will be fully recyclable, reusable or compostable in a financially viable manner by 2025.

But developing widespread corporate commitment to producing sustainable plastics will require wholesale changes to an array of products.

“Given that up to a third of all plastic packaging items are too small (such as straws and sachets) or too complex (such as multi-material films and take-away coffee cups) to be economically recycled, achieving these commitments will require a great degree of redesign and innovation,” MacArthur writes.

To aid such changes, policymakers must be willing to invest in environmentally friendly programs and research efforts.

“In the case of plastics, a crucial pillar of such a policy ambition must be stimulating scientific breakthroughs in the development of materials that can be economically reused, recycled, or composted,” MacArthur writes.

MacArthur notes that the EU’s 2017 Our Ocean conference raised 7.2 billion euros in pledges to address pollution, overexploitation, coastal degradation and the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans.

The New Plastics Economy, an initiative by MacArthur’s foundation, presents a vision for a sustainable system in which all plastics are recycled, reused or safely composted in a controlled manner.

In addition to damaging the environment, exposure to certain chemicals found in plastics can lead to a range of health issues including cancerous tumors, birth defects and other developmental disorders.

Public support for sustainable practices appears to be mounting, resulting in bans on or charges for single-use plastic shopping bags in the United Kingdom, France and Rwanda, the state of California, and several U.S. cities.

“The task now is to harness this goodwill to make sure that plastics stay in the economy and out of the oceans,” MacArthur writes.


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