Captain Charles Moore released the towline that had dragged our Junk Raft 60 nautical miles off the coast of California. The raft, which floated an old Cessna airplane atop 15,000 plastic bottles, aimed to reach Hawaii and bring awareness to an issue not yet on the minds of the public and policymakers. It was the summer of 2008, and 88 days and 2,600 miles later we landed in Waikiki, Hawaii, outrunning four hurricanes and pulling plastic out of fish stomachs. The world was paying attention, but the unanswered questions were stacking up. How much plastic is in the ocean? Where is it? Is it causing harm? And more importantly, what is the solution? What we found is that every question brought us back to land.
We put the raft away and took to the sea again, this time to research the global ocean, sailing across each of the five subtropical gyres—those spinning currents that occupy most of the ocean—aggregating and crushing plastics into smaller fragments. It took five years to sail around the planet. As the public learned of trash in the ocean, they exclaimed “someone go get it!” and in the years ahead, we received almost weekly proposals from well-intentioned inventors and entrepreneurs to clean up what the media had wrongly dubbed “islands of trash.” The hordes of “clean-uppers” with a remediation mindset set out to convince the world that picking up trash will solve the problem for good. To date, these efforts have all failed.
The hordes of ‘clean-uppers’ with a remediation mindset set out to convince the world that picking up trash will solve the problem for good. To date, these efforts have all failed.
What the science tells us is that most of the large plastic trash entering the ocean from land, over half of it, is washed back ashore, and what flows into the gyres is later ejected onto remote shorelines in a decade or less. It’s the small stuff that sticks around a little longer, creating what we call “the smog of the sea,” but even that is transported to the seafloor or seashore in time to become locked in sediments. So then why is there still trash in the ocean? Well, it’s simple—it’s because the trash going in doesn’t stop.
While remediation by the clean-uppers plays a role mitigating the ecological impact of marine debris, it will never cease the harm. Too much focus on remediation is also a dangerous diversion when it redirects awareness and resources away from a preventative strategy. As history shows, prevention, often driven by smart policy, is the only viable long-term solution. Remediation is certainly important; we do need to cleanup superfund sites, but it’s all hands on deck to pursue a preventative strategy first, to cease the harm.
In the 1960s and 70s, when the burgeoning environmental movement was in full swing, three global issues took the stage: the hole in the ozone layer, smog over cities, and tar polluting beaches worldwide. We witnessed fascinating and quite similar evolutions on each issue beginning with tremendous public outcry following the first science papers raising the red flag. Stakeholders scrambled to deal with an environmental and media nightmare. Many of the polluters took a defensive posture with counter-claims while policymakers scrambled to appease citizen groups. Everyone was asking the scientists to fill the knowledge gaps.
The hole in the ozone layer was widening, smog was blocking out the skies, and when my family went to the beach along the Gulf Coast we took a bottle of nail polish remover with us to remove the blobs of tar that inevitably stuck to our feet.
When the funding flows, science gets done, and with each of these three issues the science pointed to a preventative strategy. International policy banned CFCs, and the ozone layer is healing today. Nations passed strict emissions regulations for cars and power plants, and city skies cleared. International maritime law prevented oil tankers from rinsing oil sludge into the ocean, and the floating blobs of tar ceased to come ashore in droves. In each case, prevention worked, and the planet healed.
When the funding flows, science gets done, and with each of these three issues the science pointed to a preventative strategy. International policy banned CFCs, and the ozone layer is healing today.
Of course, there were clean-uppers back then with outlandish techno-fixes, like pumping ozone into the atmosphere or putting giant filters on the tops of skyscrapers to suck up smog. They claimed to be the ultimate solution, but they faded away quickly. With good science driving good policy, a preventative strategy prevailed.
But plastic pollution in the 1970s went a different route. Do you remember the Crying Indian Campaign, with Iron Eyes Cody watching a plastic bag tumble across the road, then looking to the camera and shedding one tear as a banner appeared proclaiming, “People Cause Pollution…”? Industry-funded ad campaigns and nonprofits like Keep America Beautiful directed the public narrative to focus on cleanup and recycling, purely a remediation strategy. Ads blamed people for plastic pollution. At the same time, efforts to regulate the design of plastic products and packaging to be recyclable were aggressively fought and beaten. Today, the assault of plastics on the environment and remote communities worldwide is abysmal, and recycling globally is struggling and collapsing.
The myth of recycling was made apparent in 2018 with China’s ban on American plastic waste exports. The United States was stuffing half the plastic waste collected from 300 million households into empty shipping containers heading back to China. That has come to a grinding halt, upending the commonly-held myth of recycling and sending American cities scrambling to do something to avoid the expense of landfilling it all. Within weeks following China’s policy, recyclers rushed to find new countries willing to take what we in the United States could not manage otherwise. A few did, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and India, but the commodity of trash is losing favor there too.
Without design standards for products and packaging to be recycled, the world is now awash in worthless plastic. Many companies today boast lofty goals like, “Our stuff will all be recyclable by 2025,” but here’s a reality check: It’s all recyclable if someone pays for the existing technology to do it! It’s not technology, it’s economics. Recycling for many products and packaging fails by design, because the true cost of collecting, sorting, and deconstructing packaging to get at a few micrograms of plastic out of it is cost-prohibitive. Also, without regulation to require the use of recycled plastic, to create a market for it, recycled content cannot compete with low-cost new plastics expected to flood the world in the decades ahead.
We find ourselves at that same crossroads with plastic pollution today as we were four decades ago. Will the world zero in on a preventative strategy, or continue to follow the fiction of remediation?
To win, there are three preventative solutions that will get us there:
1. A design revolution must prevail.
“Plastic is the lubrication of globalization,” as Captain Moore says. But packaging and shipping stuff can be done smarter, with less plastic, less waste, and in many cases without plastic at all. Innovators in the private sector are designing new ways to move goods to market without waste. Companies like Vessel and Go Box create networks of markets, restaurants, and coffee shops that honor the same reusable containers anywhere you go across the city. Or consider Repack, with its reusable boxes that Amazon could easily adopt. A design revolution would significantly reduce the avalanche of worthless plastic waste that’s costly to manage, is rapidly filling our landfills, and is incessantly leaking into the environment. It will take the will of the private sector and courage of our policymakers to make it so.
2. There is a new bioplastic in town.
Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) are the only material that mimics what plastic can do and passes the “banana peel test,” meaning that as a thin film it has a similar rate of true biodegradability in your home compost, a river bank, roadside, or in the temperate ocean. The world is plagued with thin film polyethylene and polypropylene used daily in billions of sachet packets and disposable diapers, candy wrappers and chip bags, wet wipes, and anyplace else you can think of where film plastics are being used today. Companies using polyethylene and polypropylene don’t want to give them up because of the product security benefits they give, but PHA is an all-around better choice. What’s holding it back is the ability of companies to make enough to meet demand, and market confidence that it truly works, but that’s changing fast. Companies like PepsiCo are currently pioneering the perfect potato chip bag made from PHA, scheduled to hit the store shelves soon. (Note to self, invest in PHA).
3. Zero waste your space.
Zero waste is simply the result of a true circular economy. When you get it right, there’s nothing left to bury or burn. The zero waste movement is strong, for example a network of organizations called Break Free From Plastic has nearly 2,000 organizations aligned under one set of values, including the simple idea that by designing waste out of the system, people and the planet suffer less. In the Philippines, the Mother Earth Foundation has installed zero waste centers in over 300 villages, where the typical giant burn pile on the edge of town has been transformed into a composting facility and recycle center, where former wastepickers can now bring materials they collect door-to-door to the zero waste center for cash. The recyclables are cleaner, the biodegradables make good compost, the city saves money with fewer trash trucks on the road and landfills to manage, and the community is more connected. The residuals, that is what they can’t recycle or compost, is where the conversation starts about how to improve that product or its service so there is no legacy of waste. The zero waste community model is the textbook definition of a local circular economy.
Collectively, these three ideas are about designing new materials, products, and systems for the circular economy. When I rafted across the Pacific Ocean, we lived for three months on a 20’x20’ world, nothing wasted, a circular economy by default, floating alone on a plasticized sea. When Jim Lovell looked back on the earth from Apollo 8, he saw a fragile planet alone on a sea of stars, with no place for waste. Why should CEOs see it any different?