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.
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?