Solvable Problem: Eliminating Marine Debris

Why has plastic pollution become one of the greatest global threats to ocean and waterway health?

Imagine a garbage truck, dumping a full load of plastic waste into the ocean every minute of the year. That is equivalent to 8 million metric tons of annual ocean plastic, to give a sense of the scale of our marine debris problem.
Waste carried by tidal currents accumulates along waterways and coastlines and spans the ocean surface down to its deepest sea floors. It damages coral reefs, ensnares marine species, and is often mistaken for food and ingested. Plastic debris entering the food chain is exerting multiple hazards on wildlife and potentially on humans, with repercussions that are poorly understood. The UN estimates that our oceans may contain more plastics than fish, by weight, by 2050.
Vast advances are attributable to plastics, from expanding food access and reducing food waste to improving transportation security, building lighter vehicles, and increasing access to shelter. Yet these gains often come at considerable cost—plastic waste does not biodegrade, and as such it is here to stay, becoming a bigger problem day by day. The problem has grown so large that a ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ three times the size of France floats between Hawaii and California.
The rapid growth of the middle class in emerging markets exacerbates the burden of controlling the waste stream. An estimated 95 percent of plastic waste flowing into the world’s oceans originates from just 10 rivers that travel through less-industrialized regions with a weaker ability to address the challenge due to a lack of regulation, institutional capacity, and infrastructure—including much needed mitigation for stormwater runoff, which isn’t keeping pace with community growth.
Recent innovations to clean up waterways include Debris Skimmer Boats, the Ocean Cleanup initiative, and other awareness-building campaigns and events occurring each year around the world. In corporate boardrooms, action plans lay out a ‘new plastics economy’ as leading companies like Adidas, Pepsi, and others reframe how they use and reuse plastic across their product and packaging workstreams.
Kenya recently introduced the world’s strongest ban on plastic bag production, while China, a major importer of solid waste, banned low-quality recyclable material from re-entering its shores and adding to existing stockpiles. These downstream waste cleanups must be coupled with upstream industrial efforts to realize systemic changes that span the value chain.
How might we identify the immediate actions that organizations, communities, and individuals can take right now to reduce the volume of plastics entering our waterways? How should we deal with low-value plastics that are not being collected in today’s recycling programs? How might we close the material loop on plastic so it doesn’t become waste in the first place? And how do we do all of this without losing the benefits of plastic that has made so much of modern life possible?


Marine Debris Stories