Today it’s impossible to imagine modern life without plastics. In our cars, our fashion, our homes, our appliances, our food packaging, plastics bring countless benefits to our everyday lives. Plastic packaged food lasts longer, reducing waste; use of plastic in pipes facilitates clean drinking water supplies; plastic enables life-saving medical devices such as surgical equipment and drips; and due to its lightweight, plastic use in vehicles has reduced carbon dioxide emissions.
Unfortunately, in some regions, growing demand for consumer goods has outpaced the infrastructure needed to manage used materials of all kinds, including plastics. Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters our ocean each year—the equivalent of a New York City dump truck emptying its contents into the ocean every minute.
To stem the tide of waste flowing into our ocean, we need to start with the mismanaged waste on land, where likely over 80% of marine debris originates. Everyone agrees that plastic waste doesn’t belong in the ocean. Yet there isn’t agreement on the best way to prevent it from getting there.
Some call for banning specific plastics products. However, as outlined in a recent story on NPR, scientific studies show that bans on plastic bags often have unintended consequences and can result in worse environmental outcomes, such as increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
A study by Trucost, an S&P Global-affiliated sustainability risk assessment firm, found that plastics actually reduce environmental costs by nearly four times compared to alternatives. But there are solutions to address plastic waste.
Improving waste management in pivotal countries in the Asia-Pacific region could halve the flow of plastic into the environment. Effective waste management also has broader public health and economic development benefits. Research by the World Bank suggests that the cost of investing in sustainable waste management is dwarfed by the cost of poor waste management.
Furthermore, while commonly viewed as trash, plastic litter entering the ocean still retains financial value. Marine litter both pollutes the environment and wastes a valuable resource. We need systems that can help recover that value.
Fortunately, groups such as the Trash Free Seas Alliance are uniting industry, science, and conservation leaders to develop cross-sector solutions to realize the hidden value of plastic waste. Industry stakeholders across the plastics value chain earlier this year launched the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and have committed $1.5 billion over five years to finance infrastructure, education, innovation, and cleanup efforts to keep plastic waste out of the environment.
Will that be enough? The short answer is no. Which is why groups like Circulate Capital, are also working to demonstrate the investment value of the waste and recycling sectors to attract the billions more needed to scale up integrated recycling and waste management companies and infrastructure where it is needed most.
We will also need to deploy new technologies. Plastics-to-fuel technologies may help small island states, where issues of scale limit utility of other fuel sources, and developing countries when access to clean fuel is limited. Chemical recycling technology provides new options for materials that were previously unrecyclable, as well as providing virgin material alternatives in manufacturing new polymers. Engaging the private sector and particularly new financial institutions in waste management processes is the key to these efforts.