Coming Together to Tackle Ocean Plastic

A new paper released by Ocean Conservancy and partners shows how we can be stronger than the sum of our parts.

It’s no secret that marine debris is one of the biggest problems facing our ocean: every day, the issue of ocean plastic makes headlines across the globe. Since scientists first estimated annual ocean plastic inputs at 8 million metric tons in 2015, the number of initiatives by governments, institutions, non-profits and corporations to combat marine debris has exploded.

From consumer oriented campaigns aimed at reducing single use plastic items, to organizations working to improve waste collection and management in key areas, the push to solve the ocean plastic problem has been expansive. However, for the most part, we didn’t know that much about what this effort looks like as a whole. There has not been a unified examination of the landscape of the movement to combat marine debris—until now.

Ocean Conservancy reviewed 200 major efforts targeting plastic pollution reduction and found that while everyone is working towards solutions, there is not an overarching sense of a true movement where individual efforts add up to more than just the sum of the parts. While it is vital for different stakeholders to confront the problem from different angles, enabling cooperation between these different entities would allow us to more effectively reach our goals by ensuring that we’re not missing any major pieces of the puzzle, or duplicating efforts unnecessarily. Moreover, all of us getting on the same page would give us a better sense of what isn’t being done yet, like creating demand for recycled materials, or tracking the efficacy of specific projects.

Last year, Ocean Conservancy convened a meeting of experts to discuss what is currently being done to combat marine debris, what is missing from the conversation, and how to fight the problem more effectively. This week, we’ve released a paper laying out our findings. Here are the three biggest takeaways on how we can become stronger—together—in the fight against marine debris.

1. We all need to get on the same page.

The actors involved in the movement to combat marine debris—governments, non-profits, businesses—are all working towards the same goal: an ocean free of plastic. However, up until this point, there has not been a common narrative regarding the nature of the problem or the solutions being put forth. At the moment, there are three narratives in the ocean plastic space: the need to reduce the usage and production of plastic items, the need to improve waste management and collection, and the need to move towards a circular economy. The final solution set likely involves elements from all three of these perspectives—being able to articulate an overarching narrative that brings these three stories together would enable greater cooperation.

2. We need a transparent set of goals and targets.

Up until this point, each group has formulated its own measure for success in the fight against ocean plastic. In order to more effectively tackle this problem, we need to come together as a community and develop overarching, feasible goals to work towards, beyond simply having a plastic free ocean. A common set of goals and targets will facilitate cooperation by focusing attention on the biggest priorities and identifying how far we need to go in each sector. There is not a single silver bullet that’s going to solve the ocean plastic problem, and it is critical that we have a community of actors working across a set of initiatives and strategies. However, a widely-agreed upon set of goals and targets will help inform how all those different efforts need to come together to add up to the full solution.

3. We need to be able to keep track of our collective successes.

At the moment, there is no mechanism for measuring where we are having impact and where we are falling short of our goals. In order to combat marine debris more effectively, we must develop a data platform where key information on our collective efforts are readily available. By having a systematic way of measuring our progress, we will be able to understand better what is working and what still needs to be done.

The path to how we get to this point is not yet clear, and it will take some serious teamwork from all of the different groups involved. But I remain an ocean optimist, and I know that we’re stronger together than we are apart.

The full paper can be found here.

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