This Is Plastics: Plastics Play a Key Role in Keeping Waste Out of Waterways


Plastics Play a Key Role in Keeping Waste Out of Waterways

Plastics are cleaning up marine debris while the plastics industry partners to fund new, innovative solutions.


Inadequately managed waste that ends up in marine environments can persist due to ocean currents or “gyres” that push and pull objects to singular locations. These currents have caused debris known as “garbage patches” to accumulate in the Pacific Ocean.

Myths about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch persist, largely due to a publicity stunt that claimed the floating trash made a physical island that could be seen from space. While both of these claims were false, it is important to understand where this waste is coming from and how companies and governments can work together to increase investment in plastic waste management.

The plastics industry firmly believes that plastics belong in the economy, not the environment, and has spent decades tackling oceanic plastic waste and billions of dollars developing solutions for marine debris cleanup. From miniature catamarans to PVC pipes and industry coalitions, the plastics industry is spearheading innovation and advocacy aimed at reducing plastics in the ocean and proving that plastic itself is an essential tool for cleaning up marine waste.

Autonomous robots, powered by plastics, clean up marine and waterway debris

A Hong Kong-based company, Open Ocean Engineering, developed an AI-enabled robotic boat, Clearbot Neo, that autonomously picks up floating garbage from Hong Kong’s busy harbor, preventing trash from floating further into the ocean. Clearbot is outfitted with a camera and built like a miniature catamaran, a boat that is lightweight yet spacious—perfect for storing and hauling trash back to shore. In one day, Clearbot Neo can collect 200 kilograms of garbage and can even be modified to clean up oil and fuel spills. Using AI, Clearbot also recognizes and logs the type of trash it collects and avoids disturbing marine life. Clearbot’s camera, which ensures that its AI feature can function properly, is protected by polycarbonate, which in some cases can waterproof cameras that are even submerged in water. The Clearbot catamaran’s lightweight yet durable structure is also dependent on plastics to function. Modern catamaran production relies on Fiber Reinforced Polymer (FRP), a non-corrosive material made with epoxy, vinylester or polyester, which make vessels sturdy yet lightweight.

Plastic Fischer, a European-based nonprofit organization, specializes in developing low-tech plastic collection systems for ocean-neighboring rivers. Plastic Fischer counts the TrashBoom among its innovations—a plastic barrier designed to passively stop floating waste in rivers to prevent it from reaching the ocean. According to the nonprofit, the plastic TrashBoom collects between 400 and 1,000 kilograms of waste per week. Plastic Fischer has open sourced its TrashBoom technology for others to easily build their own, using their public instruction manual and one of the most versatile plastic instruments available—PVC pipes.

Circular economy solutions reduce plastic waste

In addition to innovative cleanup technologies, the plastics industry is committed to investing in initiatives to keep plastics out of the environment and inside the economy. In the Midwest, industry leaders including the American Packaging Corporation and Dow Imperial are funding a Circular Great Lakes initiative to develop a region-specific circular economy strategy to craft and implement targeted waste management plans in the next five years. The alliance not only focuses on removing plastic waste from the Great Lakes but also incorporates the material into a larger reuse and remanufacturing strategy that will ensure plastic never becomes waste. The initiative, backed by The Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR), has a six layered approach to the issue—collection, processing, end markets, education and engagement, supporting policies and public-private funding.

Circular Great Lakes can serve as a multi-stakeholder model to eliminate plastic waste from waterways through industry investment and government buy-in. The alliance also serves as a case study for how encouraging circular economy solutions can ensure plastics stay out of the environment.

Plastics industry is investing in research and solutions for oceanic plastic waste

The plastics industry is invested in cleaning up our waterways and has demonstrated this dedication by working with governments on effective policies, and with commitments to sustainable corporate stewardship and action-oriented partnerships. Operation Clean Sweep (OCS), supported by the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) and the American Chemistry Council’s Plastic Division, has a proven record of eliminating plastic pellets from the environment over the last 25 years. The campaign’s main objective is to help members implement best waste management practices and minimize plastic pollution through a holistic approach of prevention, containment, clean up and disposal procedures. Specific practices include placing containers in loading areas to catch stray microplastics or “nurdles,” increasing packaging sturdiness, conducting in-transit checks and using storm drain screens.  

The plastics industry has also found success working with government on effective policies that keep stakeholder engagement and input top of mind. Passed into law in 2020, Save Our Seas (SOS) 2.0 builds on the SOS Act of 2018 and focuses on fortifying domestic infrastructure to prevent marine litter, enhance international engagement and combat marine debris. This codified investment is only enhanced by the plastic industry’s ongoing efforts to address plastic waste through increased recycling infrastructure and new innovations.

While plastic is ideal for developing new technologies that tackle ocean and waterway cleanup, public-private partnerships illustrate how vital stakeholder engagement and collaboration is to support cleanup efforts. Together, this two-pronged approach can ensure that ocean cleanups will continue to become easier and more efficient in the future.

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