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Is Recycling Enough to Save Our Whales from Plastics?

The plastic going into the ocean is a problem almost as big as the ocean itself

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© Bradley Sinclair

Earlier this week, I met with Janet Shamlian of CBS This Morning to explore the overwhelming problem of ocean plastic. Plastic touches all of our lives, from the food packaging we buy to the computers and phones we work on every day. Many of the plastics you touch in your daily life are used only once and thrown away, or at best, recycled. Getting waste collection and recycling right improves more than just ocean health. It can increase economic and job growth, make us healthier and reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses. But recycling alone is not enough to dig us out of the ocean plastic hole.

The CBS piece explored chemical recycling in particular, and while this approach may sound like the solution to all our recycling problems (it can process “contaminated” plastic, like items with food waste, but the jury is still out on exactly what role (if any) it could or should play in the plastic pollution equation. What we do know is that any solution must be safe for people, the planet and our ocean.

The bottom line is that there is no silver bullet to the ocean plastics problem.

Each year, an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic flows into the ocean. That’s an entire dump truck of plastic emptying into the ocean every single minute of every single day, 365 days a year—that’s not sustainable for people, the planet or our ocean.

Plastic has been found in the deepest part of the ocean—the Marianas Trench—and the northernmost point of our blue planet, the Arctic. It has been found in nearly every species of seabird known to man. It impacts more than 800 marine species and it harms seals, sea turtles, and whales—we’ve seen story after story of dead whales washing to shore with pounds of plastic in their stomachs. Plastic has even been found in the fish we eat.

Certain single-use disposable products like plastic bags, foam takeout containers and straws need to be phased out of the market place by businesses to eliminate the threat they pose to ocean health. At the same time, we need to ensure appropriate waste collection and improved recycling exists in all communities around the world, particularly in rapidly developing economies—we’re working to do just that.

Businesses and companies need to step up, and make sure that the products they’re putting into the marketplace can be captured and returned, instead of going into the natural environment—AND we need a wholesale redesign of some products and systems so that we can rapidly move to a circular economy.  We’ve seen a number of companies commit to these goals.

And each one of us has a role to play, too:

  • Join us on the world’s largest single-day volunteer effort on behalf of the ocean, the International Coastal Cleanup. This year it’s September 21st, 2019.
  • Download the Clean Swell app before you hit the beach and be a part of the solution anywhere, anytime. The app allows you to easily record each item of trash you collect. The data you collect will instantaneously upload to Ocean Conservancy’s global ocean trash database.
  • Skip the straw when eating out and/or carry a reusable straw.
  • Support businesses you see doing it right by stepping up to redesign their products (like Starbucks and their new straw-free lids)

At the end of the day, ocean plastic pollution is not an ocean problem. It’s a people problem. We can and must solve this problem.

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