Every year more than eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped in the ocean, while only 14 percent is collected for recycling. Given the numbers, it is easy to feel helpless about ocean plastic. But is the tide turning – and what is being done to tackle plastic pollution?
While individuals have been trying to deal with ocean plastic for years, with limited success and attention, we have now reached a tipping point. Companies now have no choice but to respond to the increasingly-savvy consumers who are starting to pressure the producers and users of plastic to tackle the problem.
People like Alex Morss, a journalist from Bristol in the west of England, who organises “plastic attacks” at supermarkets. It’s a devastatingly simple idea – and a lot less confrontational than it sounds. Volunteers talk to shoppers as they enter the store and simply ask them to remove all the unnecessary plastic from their groceries before they leave.
“About a year ago, I tweeted a picture of a coconut wrapped in plastic and then forgot about it. But the next morning, it had gone around the world and the head of Sainsbury’s was on TV saying he would look into it. It made me realise that we can make a difference,” she said.
“The people we talk to at the supermarkets tell us they are sick of all this plastic. They feel powerless and they’re delighted to get involved. Even the staff are happy about it,” she added.
The movement has now spread to at least 25 other countries and is growing all the time. Its appeal is that it puts the pressure back on the retailers, and through them, the brands that use so much plastic.
The starting point for much of this new-found urgency to tackle the problem was the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 programme, whose images of albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic and a whale with a bucket caught in its mouth horrified viewers and brought home the scale of the problem.
“Ocean plastic is only one of the many threats to the oceans, but it was the one that struck a chord,” said Mark Brownlow, producer of the series. “People can see a direct connection between using a plastic bag at the supermarket and seeing a bag floating in the sea. And it’s an area where people think they can do something quite quickly. It’s not like climate change.”
Making the plastic producers responsible for dealing with it does yield results. Walkers Crisps, the UK’s biggest producer of the snack, has recently started a recycling scheme for its crisp packets after people started sending empty packets to the company as a protest against plastic waste. There are also schemes for recycling contact lense packs, toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes.
Ocean plastic is only one of the many threats to the oceans, but it was the one that struck a chord
These schemes are nowhere near enough, but they are a start – and they are happening because shoppers are demanding action. “Consumer pressure is the only reason anything is happening,” said David Katz, who founded the Plastics Bank, a US-based NGO that buys ocean-bound plastic from areas where the problem is most acute and sells it to companies that want to increase the amount of recycled plastic in their packaging.
More than half of the plastic leaking into the ocean comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the consultancy McKinsey. It’s in many of these countries that Katz’s Plastic Bank has had an impact, collecting hundreds of millions of bottles to help create a reliable supply of ocean-bound plastic that big brands can reuse, Katz said.
Shoppers should refuse to buy products with needless plastic packaging, he said. “Now, consumers are waking up to the knowledge that every time you buy something, you are voting with your wallet,” he added.
Indonesian businessman David Christian decided to act after returning to the country after a period studying in Vancouver, when he noticed just how much waste there was on the streets compared to the Canadian city.
“The government has started to take it seriously, but we just don’t have the infrastructure to deal with all our waste,” Christian said. Like the rest of Asia, Indonesians use a lot of sachets, which many of the large consumer products groups sell because they allow customers in developing countries to buy small amounts of products they would not otherwise be able to afford.
His solution was to start a company making sachets made from seaweed. “People are always talking about the plastics problem in a heavy way. I wanted to do it in a more fun way and there are a lot of advantages. We have a lot of seaweed in Indonesia; we’re the largest producer in the world.
“You don’t use land so it doesn’t contribute to deforestation, and it absorbs CO2, so it helps fight climate change. And seaweed grows really fast – you can harvest it every 45 days,” he added.
I can see the problem getting worse at beaches all around the world
MD of supermarket chain Iceland, Richard Walker, has also seen plastic pollution first-hand. He said: “As a surfer, I have a personal passion for dealing with plastics. I can see the problem getting worse at beaches all around the world.”
Walker was the first retail boss in the UK to introduce reverse vending machines where customers can deposit plastic bottles in return for a voucher to spend in store. While they are only in a few of Iceland’s stores, they have been “phenomenally successful”. Just four machines have collected more than 310,000 bottles. “There’s been overwhelming interest from consumers,” said Mr Walker.
He says he would like to roll it out to every store, but “the economics don’t add up unless there is a national deposit return scheme. It’s such a competitive marketplace that it’s difficult to do on our own.” And while other supermarkets are also trialling the machines, no-one will commit unless everyone is involved. In Norway, where there is a national scheme, the recycling rate is 96 percent, he pointed out.
At the other end of the problem, Dutch inventor Boyan Slat dropped out of college aged 18 to set up the Ocean Clean Up in 2013, to collect the millions of tons of plastic floating in the ocean. He is working on creating a 600m floating barrier with the ambitious aim of removing up to 90 percent of ocean plastic by 2040.
“What we are doing is unprecedented. There has never been a clean-up system of this magnitude deployed in the ocean. People assume that a complex problem requires a complex solution. But I think simpler solutions can be better.
“When we started this, we didn’t know if it would work, but considering the scale of the problem, I thought it was important to at least try.”