The Prince of Wales and the Global Ocean Commission highlight growing issue of plastic waste in the ocean
The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit (ISU) and the Global Ocean Commission co-hosted an event in Washington DC on 18 March to discuss the growing problems of and concern over marine plastic waste. A key focus of the meeting was to bring together a diverse group of participants, representing industry, government, academia and NGOs, to discuss what additional efforts may be required to fast-track both waste reduction in the short-term and the transition to a circular economy in the medium-term, and discuss some of the aspects of collective action challenges, collaborative approaches between industry, and catalytic policy frameworks.
Plastic pushed into a small bay floats just beneath the surface. Gavin Parsons photo
Plastic wraps our food, houses, technology. It has improved our health care and helped millions out of poverty, but we all know where disposable consumer goods end up, all too often after a single, fleeting use: in landfills, littering our landscapes, and with millions of tonnes in our ocean every year.
The vast, floating, oceanic gyres of plastic have become an iconic image of our careless and wasteful consumption patterns. We know that we can only see the 15% of the plastic in the ocean that is floating on the surface; the remainder is in the water column or on the ocean floor. It entangles marine animals and blights our beaches with a never-ending stream of trash. Less visible, but even more abundant and threatening to the marine environment, are the countless tiny particles or ‘micro-plastics’ that are created when plastic waste is broken down in the ocean, and which are impossible to remove.
“It is high time that we translate our growing awareness about plastic consumption into real action. The solution must be a three-pronged global drive to reduce the amount of plastic we use, manage our waste more responsibly, and prolong the lifespan of the plastic we do use through smart design and innovative schemes as part of a circular economy. Plastic is a valuable resource to be treated wisely, used and reused, not a cheap, disposable material to be casually consumed, thrown out and replaced,” said Global Ocean Commission co-Chair David Miliband.
As well as David Miliband, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales was joined by fellow co-Chair José María Figueres, and Global Ocean Commissioners Carol Browner and Robert Hill. “The special meeting in Washington this week was held to convene the key players to build momentum for change. Along with The Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit, the Commission is challenging business leaders, the plastics industry, governments and marine waste experts to identify specific practical steps that can confront the problem of plastic in the ocean, and take responsibility for taking these steps,” said José María Figueres.
Our resolve to act was recently given a boost with the publication of a study that, for the first time, estimates the total mass of plastic waste entering the global ocean every year. Published in Science in February, this paper estimates that about 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ended up in the ocean in 2010 alone. The authors equated this to five shopping bags full of plastic for every foot of coastline in the 192 countries examined. Put another way, 8 million tonnes (the mid-range estimate) is nearly double the volume of tuna removed by the fishing industry every year.
“Faced with such a damaging and accumulating side-effect from the throw-away society, it is, I believe, utterly crucial that we do much more to speed up the transition to a more ‘circular’ economy – that is to say, one in which materials are recovered, recycled and reused instead of created, used and then thrown away,” said The Prince of Wales.
The new study revealed that 83% of the mismanaged plastic waste potentially destined for the ocean is produced in just 20 countries, the majority of which are middle-income states experiencing rapid economic transition though still lacking waste infrastructure to support such development. Finding ways to support waste collection and management initiatives in these regions, as well as interregional cooperation and exchanges in best-practice, were firmly on the agenda at our meeting. These changes will take time, and massive investment, but are imperative – not just for our ocean, but for the millions of people around the world whose lives would be vastly improved by advances in waste collection.
In the short-term it is a question of expanding and fast-tracking a reduction in single-use plastics, e.g. food packaging and plastic bags, through incentives, regulations and awareness. In the medium-term we need to transition towards a circular economy, and here the lion’s share of the responsibility lies with industry. A circular economy is restorative and resilient by design, maximising the utility and value of all its materials and resources.
Manufacturers and businesses of all kinds have benefited from low-cost plastic for decades, shouldering little of the burden of managing the waste. Business leaders have immense resources at their disposal, so let us put them to use formulating ways to use plastic that reflect its true cost and value to humanity. Companies that put themselves at the forefront of this necessary transition stand to profit most from the multitude of new opportunities for innovation in product design and distribution.
This meeting in Washington is just one in a series of solution-orientated conversations the Global Ocean Commission will be having this year aimed at securing commitments to stemming the flow of plastic into the ocean. The Commission is seeking to engage with business leaders to take a stand for the ocean, work with governments and civil society to catalyse the transitions that are currently happening too slowly, and position itself at the crest of the wave of change.
The report of the event by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin can be foundhere.