This Is Plastics: Setting the Record Straight: Common Misconceptions about Plastic Waste in the Ocean


Setting the Record Straight: Common Misconceptions about Plastic Waste in the Ocean

Learn about marine waste misconceptions and how the plastics industry is working to address the issue through innovation and investment.


In April 2022, when speaking about the challenge of plastic pollution in oceans, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Assistant Administrator Jane Nishida said, “the vast majority of the plastic trash entering our oceans is due to inadequate waste management.” While media hyperbole commonly points to photos of plastic pollution—like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)—and places blame on single-use plastics, these talking points are downright misleading.

In reality, the primary source for ocean pollution and marine debris is lost fishing gear. While previous assessments have portrayed developing coastal economies as major contributors to ocean pollution, a 2022 study published in Scientific Reports found that most plastic in the GPGP can be directly traced to fishing activities in industrialized countries—not to consumer use.

175 nations at the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi have pledged to support a resolution to “End Plastic Pollution,” with plans to develop a legally binding international agreement by 2024. As UNEA members gather for future negotiations, it is more important than ever to correct misguided information and ensure decisionmakers prioritize policies that promote a more circular economy while capturing plastics’ unparalleled sustainability and performance benefits over alternative materials.

Limiting single-use plastic items is counterproductive

Marine debris is a serious environmental concern, and addressing it will require fact-based solutions, not deflection or false narratives. After conducting offshore tests in the GPGP, The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit organization developing and scaling technologies to remove floating plastics from the ocean, found that the measurement of offshore oceanic plastic pollution, such as lost fishing gear, has been historically underestimated. A new study attributes this underestimation to the misinterpretation of an initial study dating back to the 1970s that has since been repeatedly cited.

The Ocean Cleanup analyzed over 1,200 pounds of debris from the GPGP using modern technology and ran simulations to determine the origin of waste collected during offshore tests. The organization found that the largest single source of debris in the GPGP is “ghost gear,” a term used to describe abandoned and lost fishing gear that make up nearly 50 percent of marine litter. Ghost gear, representing 75 to 86 percent of plastics found in the GPGP, is the single largest contributor to plastic pollution in the ocean and primarily originates from fishing activities in the United States, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Russia. These findings emphasize the significance of critically evaluating the challenge of environmental waste from all perspectives and the role different stakeholders can play in making our oceans waste-free.

Projects designed to reduce the flow of lost, discarded or abandoned fishing nets, fish aggregating devices (FADs), long lines and other fishing gear in the ocean will be critical in the fight to address marine debris. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative is a cross-stakeholder alliance that is already working to combat the impact of lost and abandoned fishing gear by implementing best practices and policies to prevent and remediate ghost gear in the environment. Additionally, responsible investments in recycling infrastructure, including advanced recycling facilities, can help curb marine debris.

Industry investment in infrastructure and technology helps reduce plastic waste

Increased investment in innovative technologies to capture, repurpose, reprocess and reuse post-consumer plastics can help reduce plastic pollution in the marine environment and simultaneously deter the loss of valuable material. In fact, post-consumer plastic packaging that ends up in the trash amounts to about $80 to $120 billion each year. This number can be drastically decreased through investments in a circular economy.

New research and development initiatives spearheaded by the plastics industry to process complex plastics are helping ensure that all plastic can be reused or recycled. As of January 2022, Eastman Chemical Company announced plans to invest up to $1 billion to construct the world’s largest molecular plastics recycling facility in France. Over the last few years, ExxonMobil and Shell have been developing innovative advanced recycling programs, which process complex plastics like wrappers and detergent bottles, that can keep more plastic out of landfills and out of the ocean. Since 2019, Shell has updated and invested in processes that break down complex and multilayered plastics back into their original polymers, so they can be used to produce new plastic materials. Through innovative partnerships with other companies, Shell has been able to expand its advanced recycling capabilities and upgrade pyrolysis units that utilize municipal solid waste plastic for reuse, both domestically and internationally.    

Innovative investments like these extend the lifecycle of plastic materials and ensure waste is properly managed to remain in the economy and out of our ecosystems. However, the goal of eliminating marine litter won’t be accomplished by the plastics industry alone. It takes all of us to find real solutions to the environmental challenges we face.

Ocean pollution requires a dedicated multi-stakeholder solution

addressed plastic pollution head-on and dedicated billions of dollars to innovation and advocacy aimed at reducing waste in the ocean. Moreover, the efforts don’t stop there. The plastics industry has engaged with and supported bipartisan policy efforts like Save Our Seas 2.0, signed into law in 2020, which enhances international engagement and improves domestic infrastructure to reduce plastic waste.

Another productive piece of legislation introduced this Congress is the Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act (RIAA), which supports efforts to evaluate existing recycling systems, identify opportunities for improved recycling infrastructure and expand circularity investments. The EPA has also committed around $350 million to upgrade recycling infrastructure and improve education on plastic waste pollution. With more funding and support of advanced recycling and infrastructure building, marine pollution challenges can be solved.

These efforts also extend abroad. In 2020, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation launched its $2.5 billion Ocean Plastic Initiative, a testament to the importance of private investment in developing waste management and recycling infrastructure. The international Trash Free Waters initiative outlines EPA’s approach to a multi-tier stakeholder solution to address marine debris, serving as a model for countries to address the challenges of oceanic pollution and improve waste stream management. Integrated efforts between industry actors and governments are critical to mitigating plastic waste in the ocean and reiterating the importance of stakeholder collaboration to strengthen waste management systems around the world.

The push towards a global plastics treaty presents a unique opportunity for global, multi-stakeholder collaboration as countries continue to tackle oceanic pollution and implement improved waste management systems. With continued industry innovation and expanded public investment in recycling technologies, countries across the globe can work together to address oceanic pollution and discover new ways to promote a more circular economy.

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