This Is Plastics: Correcting the Record I: Common Misconceptions About Plastic Waste in the Ocean

Environment

Correcting the Record I: 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.

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In April 2022, when speaking about the challenge of plastic pollution in oceans, the 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 common refrain points to photos of plastic pollution—like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—and places blame on single-use plastics, these talking points are incredibly misleading.

In reality, the primary challenge for ocean pollution and marine debris is lost fishing gear and a lack of infrastructure, particularly in the developing world—not consumers using plastic bags. Increased focus on and investment in new infrastructure and technologies, including advanced or molecular recycling, can reduce marine debris and keep valuable plastic products in our economy.

Single-use plastic items are a scapegoat

Marine debris is a serious environmental concern and addressing it will require tackling the real root cause. While plastics industry critics often point a finger to single-use plastic items, they often ignore the four fingers pointing back to mismanaged waste streams in the developing world as a result of lacking infrastructure. Currently, 90 percent of oceanic plastic pollution comes from just ten rivers—eight of which are in Asia and two are in Africa.

Comparatively, Canada and the United States have sound domestic waste management systems to route waste to proper disposal without polluting the environment. In fact, only 4% of waste is mismanaged in the United States. More can be done to ensure waste management infrastructure is equally just as sound abroad, but it starts with following the data to the root cause

The largest single source of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine pollution in the North Pacific Ocean, is “ghost gear,” a term used to describe abandoned and lost fishing gear that make up nearly 50% of marine litter. Globally, ghost gear, represents 10% of all ocean-bound plastic pollution, and is the single largest contributor to plastic pollution in the ocean.

Projects designed to reduce flows 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 avoid losing valuable material. In fact, post-consumer plastic packaging that ends up in the trash amounts to about $80-$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. Recently, 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 are able to keep more plastic out of landfills and out of the ocean. In 2019 Shell announced a new process that breaks down complex and multilayered plastic back into its original polymers so that it can be used to produce new plastics.

Innovative investments like these extend the lifecycle of plastic materials and ensure waste is properly managed to remain in the economy.

However, the goal of eliminating marine litter won’t be accomplished by the plastics industry alone.

The problem of oceanic plastic waste requires a multi-stakeholder solution

The plastics industry has tackled oceanic plastic waste head-on and dedicated billions of dollars to spearhead innovation and advocacy aimed at reducing plastics in the ocean. Nevertheless, efforts don’t stop there. The plastics industry has also 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 is the Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Value of Expanding Recycling (RECOVER) Act, which would allocate federal grants to states and municipalities to invest in recycling programs and new technologies to increase collection rates and promote consumer education. 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 an all-hands stakeholder solution to addressing marine debris and  serves as a model for countries to address the challenges of oceanic pollution and better manage waste streams. Programs and initiatives like these are critical to mitigating plastic waste in the ocean, and emphasize the importance of stakeholder collaboration to strengthen waste management systems around the world.

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