Marine plastic pollution

27 June 2017

There could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 if we don’t do anything about plastic waste. Tanya Weaver finds this shocking and discovers the solution lies in shifting towards a circular economy

If I told you to imagine a small uninhabited South Pacific island, thousands of miles away from civilisation, what would you see? I’d see white sandy beaches, palm trees bending over clear blue water and maybe the odd seabird bobbing in the waves and a crab scuttling along the sand. The reality is horrific — plastic waste strewn along the shore, waves bobbing with debris and crabs making their homes in bottle caps and cosmetic bottles.

This is Henderson Island, which made headline news in mid-May when Jennifer Lavers and her research team at the University of Tasmania’s institute for marine and antarctic studies in Australia revealed the nearly 38 million pieces of plastic waste they’d found on the island’s beaches and the 13,000 new items washing up daily.

How can this remote island show up our throwaway culture in this way? But a quick google into the murky waters of plastic marine pollution revealed even more horrific statistics. For instance, a study in Science Magazine in 2015 estimated that around eight million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year.

And it’s not just what’s floating on the surface (disposable plastic being the biggest culprit — bottle caps, straws, polythene bags etc.), it’s those tiny plastic particles or ‘microplastics’ swirling around below it that fish and shellfi shingest. Scientists at Belgium’s Ghent University revealed in a study earlier this year that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments each year whilst Plymouth University similarly reported that plastic has been found in a third of UK-caught fish. A side of plastic with your moules-frites anyone?

One person who has spent a fair share of time on our oceans (71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes 33 seconds to be precise when she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe) is the now retired English sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur.

During this feat with nothing for company but the sea, her boat, the odd bit of wildlife and no doubt the occasional piece of plastic waste floating by, it got her thinking about the notion of a circular economy and that, just as she had limited supplies that she could take with her, the earth has a finite supply of resources.

Following her retirement in 2010 she announced the launch of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity to help businesses move towards a circular economy. Our current economic model is largely based on the linear ‘take, make, dispose’ in which we are using finite materials to create single use products that end up in landfill (or found floating on the sea). Whereas in a circular economy we redesign the way products are made to keep them and the materials they are made from circulating and contributing to the economy.

Effectively, designing products that maximise recycling and re-use. Knowing the crucial role that design and in turn designers have to play in this shift from the linear to the circular, product design consultancy IDEO joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a knowledge partner. The two have collaborated in the creation of the New Circular Design Guide, which was launched earlier this year. This practical guide is aimed at helping designers and businesses get started in applying circular principles and also supports complex challenges such as rethinking global plastic flows.

Another organisation extolling the benefits of the circular economy is the International Sustainability Unit (ISU), which was established by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2010. One of the many challenges it is addressing is plastic waste in the marine environment and how a transition to a more circular economy in the plastics value chain can be achieved through cross sector collaboration.

With this in mind, in February 2017 it held a workshop with business leaders, designers and material experts on the role that design and innovation can play in stemming the fl ow of plastics into the ocean.

Then, putting their two heads together (the ISU and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that is), on 18 May 2017 they jointly launched the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize — a $2 million prize to find solutions that keep plastics in the economy.

At the launch Dame Ellen MacArthur had this rather poignant message, “After 40 years of effort, globally only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, one third escaping collection and ending up in the environment. If we want to change this, we must fundamentally rethink the way we make and use plastics. We need better materials, clever product designs and circular business models. That’s why we are launching the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, calling for innovators, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs to help create a plastic systems that works.”

The prize is actually two parallel challenges (newplasticseconomy.org). The first is the Circular Design Challenge, which invites applicants to rethink how we get products to people without generating plastic waste.

This challenge focusses on small-format packaging (the scrooge of the sea — those single use disposable items including takeaway coffee cup lids, drinks bottle caps, sauce and shampoo sachets, wrappers etc.) that are the hardest to recycle.

The second is the Circular Materials Challenge, which seeks ways to make all plastic packaging recyclable, and is inviting applicants to find alternative materials that would be recycled or composted.

I’m no environmental crusader, but I do feel quite passionately that we need to take responsibility for how we treat our planet and do something to halt the damage we are doing. So next time you throw that piece of plastic wrapper or packaging in the bin, think about how you could design it differently.

I for one would like to keep plastic off our beaches and out of my bouillabaisse.

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