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Ocean Currents

Can We Turn Trash Into Treasure?

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Smart Solutions Are Smart Business

An estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic enters our ocean every year, and that figure is predicted to double in the next ten years if something isn’t done. A problem this large can’t be solved by one government, one company or one organization – it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

Last week, Ocean Conservancy released a ground-breaking study: Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean. The report outlines a specific path forward for the reduction, and ultimate elimination, of plastic waste in the ocean. The report is a signature initiative of the Trash Free Seas Alliance®, an effort of Ocean Conservancy to unite industry, science and conservation leaders who share a common goal for a healthy ocean free of trash.

The Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa (REDISA) is one of the newest members of the Alliance, and was one of the partners that made this report possible. We recently sat down with Hermann Erdmann, (CEO of REDISA) to discuss the importance of trash collection.

Q: What does the ocean mean to your company and your employees?

A: REDISA does not specifically rely on the ocean, but our work and ethos are all about changing how we view waste: waste is resources being diverted from useful materials into pollutants, and we need to work towards stopping that misuse.

The oceans are among the most crucial victims of waste. Considering what an indispensable resource they are, providing the world with food (nearly 20kg/person/annum, and up to 50% of protein in some countries) and oxygen (50% to 80% of the world’s total supply), everyone should be concerned about the levels of plastic pollution and the as yet unknown consequences that will follow.

REDISA has practical ideas on how to combat ocean waste, and wants to be a part of the solution.

Q: When did marine debris and ocean plastic first become a concern for you, and why did you decide to work on solutions?

A: We got involved through an introduction via McKinsey & Company. McKinsey knew of the waste management solution being implemented by REDISA in South Africa, saw the congruence of Ocean Conservancy’s work around the problems of plastic waste leakage and REDISA’s activities, and invited us to become part of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance®. It was, as they say, a no-brainer.

Q: How do you engage your employees on this issue?

A: REDISA preaches non-stop it’s ‘Waste Into Worth’ mantra, both internally and to whatever wider audiences we can find. We have been active in many countries, promoting the circular economy agenda. If we can achieve circularity, we solve many issues in one bundle: conserving resources prevents them becoming waste; preventing waste prevents pollution and protects the environment; re-using and recovering materials creates fresh economic activity, meaning more jobs, businesses and GDP growth.

Q: What was the motivating factor to begin working with Ocean Conservancy and other ocean partners? Does one particular experience from your time thus far stand out in your mind?

A:  We are still new to this, but it has been very encouraging to see the level of participation from major corporations, many of whom could be seen as part of the problem if it were not that they clearly understand their role and have actively chosen to be part of the solution. It’s easy from the outside to think of the mega-corporations as being uncaring and purely profit-driven, and it’s great to see good corporate citizenship in action.

Q: What is the one thing you would say to people interested in ocean conservation looking to learn more about this issue?

A: The opening remarks on the significance of the oceans needs to be understood, and juxtaposed with the imminent state where we could have 1kg of plastic for every 3kg of fish in our ocean in the next 10 years! That should frighten everyone, whether you live on the coast, or eat fish, or not.

Q: As we drive towards developing and implementing solutions for the ocean plastic problem, what opportunities do REDISA and other corporate partners see as most promising to drive real change on the issue?

A: Waste generally has a bad name, as a problem to be solved, when in fact it is an opportunity waiting to be tapped.

And more prosaically, if we don’t solve the problem, it will be resolved in ways we don’t like. It sounds melodramatic to say we are looking at Game Over for the planet (or at least, for human civilization as we know it), but with world reserves of 20 of the elements estimated to be less than 50 years’ worth (per Ellen MacArthur Foundation), with global pollution and ocean plastics on the kind of growth curve we see now, it is a real prospect at least in our children’s lifetime. Will it happen? Probably not, as we are a resourceful species, but the road to survival could be very rough.

On the other hand, if we can instead get urban mining and the circular economy going, there are enormous opportunities for positive outcomes. The problems with achieving these goals are usually in economic distortions: externalities, hidden subsidies, a lack of understanding of the true present value of diminishing resources.

We believe that it is – in global policy terms – relatively straightforward to address these problems if you can just get the world’s politicians and decision makers to understand the threat, understand the maze of confusing ‘wrong’ economics that cloud the issues, and see the massive upsides waiting to be exploited. We want to be part of that process.

 

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