Cleaning Our Oceans Begins on Land

The Imperative of Tri-Sector Commitment to Eliminate Marine Debris

By: Tamta Revazishvili, Catesby Wolski, and Laura Branker

Whether beach strolling on the east coast of the United States or along Manila Bay, you can expect to see a sharp contrast between natural beauty and a spectacle of plastic waste. Sullied beaches are just one manifestation of an ecological crisis that continues to expand unabated as the hand-wringing and debate struggles to yield substantive commitments to address the waste challenge. Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic, the ubiquitous material that benefits and harms our wellbeing in equal measures.

Our relationship with plastic is a dilemma. Today, plastic is found in everything from cars to medical devices to food packaging. While plastic chokes oceans and inflicts untold damage to marine species, it also delivers significant benefits to society.

Yet the problem goes far beyond that eye sore on your local beach. Ocean plastic kills millions of marine animals every year. Progressively breaking down into smaller fragments as the material degrades, microplastics are often mistaken for food, thereby entering the food chain. Chemicals added to plastics can be absorbed into the tissues of fish, presenting a real threat to human and wildlife health. Microplastics are found everywhere in the ocean. Even in the deepest depths, ocean residents cannot escape it. On some isolated Hawaiian beaches, it was determined that as much as 15 percent of the sand is actually grains of microplastics.

While most low-income countries may lack the infrastructure, guidance, or political will to turn the tide on post-consumer plastics, industrialized countries with advanced waste management strategies are not above reproach. These countries are merely better at displacing their waste such that it is out of sight and therefore out of mind, perpetuating wasteful behavior.

Solving the challenge requires wholesale changes to the plastics economy—through both upstream solutions, in the materials and product designs producers use, and downstream solutions, on the post-consumer management side of the equation.

We in the West have come to identify the termination of one use with the termination of all usefulness, and we carry this simple idea through ruthlessly, in our own treatment of the old as much as our treatment of waste products our society generates in such profusion… While waste remains valueless it will be wasted: and this valuelessness is a consequence of the tunnel vision from which we in the West all suffer.   –Martin Pawley (1975)

There are a growing number of public and private sector interventions that signal the beginning of a global movement. Some countries are banning the use of plastic bags. Corporations are responding to public opinion by limiting their footprint and actively seeking better materials and product designs. Multinational giants like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Amcor, and Unilever have pledged to transition to 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025. Johnson & Johnson is switching from plastic back to paper stems on its cotton swabs.

These are among the many reasons to be encouraged and to push forward at an even more rapid rate. The challenge is solvable within our lifetimes, but it will require true commitment from the public sector to create an enabling environment for the solutions to take root, from the private sector to develop products built for a circular economy, and from the social sector to ensure that awareness and behavior changes are growing in communities across the globe.

At the individual consumer level, there is no need to wait for new legislation and corporate pledges. Take personal responsibility for your waste footprint and remember that each individual action makes a difference!


This article is part of a series on “solvable problems” within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Engagement Forum: Live takes place this October 10–11, 2018, bringing together leaders from across the private, public, and social sectors to co-create solutions and partnerships to address four urgent, yet solvable problems—closing the skills gap in STEM, reducing post-harvest food loss, ending energy poverty, and eliminating marine debris and ocean plastics. Learn more about the Forum here.

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