The Ocean Needs Innovation to Prevent Plastic Pollution

We need to build waste management systems to address the growing threat of ocean plastics

The ocean is essential to the way we live—it gives us life, it feeds us and it is an infinite source of inspiration. Unfortunately, the ocean faces an unprecedented crisis. The plastics we use are leaking into the ocean, threatening the health of the ocean and the resources we depend on. During these difficult times, when current conditions keep us apart, we must remember that we are all connected through the ocean and that the ocean unites us.

Approximately 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources, with the majority traced to a relatively small number of coastal and riverine urban areas where rapid growth and economic development has outpaced the development of waste management infrastructure. Studies by Ocean Conservancy and the Trash Free Seas Alliance have identified improving waste collection and management systems as the fastest way to prevent and reduce marine litter in the near-term.

The need for better waste management systems is even more critical now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists recently estimated that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves have been used around the world every month. Many of these items are designed for single use and are causing additional strain on the already overburdened waste management system. In addition to these new sources of plastic pollution, there have also been rollbacks in plastic bag bans over fears of COVID-19 contamination. The increased amount of waste during the pandemic underscores the need to take time now to address the ocean plastics crisis. Our goal should be to emerge from this pandemic with stronger and better waste systems and a healthier ocean.

Integrated, locally-appropriate waste management solutions are needed immediately, but it is unlikely that government funding alone will be sufficient to build the necessary systems. To fill that gap, private and philanthropic investments are necessary to reduce innovation barriers and make these systems more economically viable. At the same time, the public sector plays a central role in developing, managing and regulating these systems over the long term for multiple benefits, including public health and safety, reduced carbon emissions and economic development as well as stopping the leakage of litter into the ocean and environment.

In support of the 2020 APEC priority “Driving Innovative Sustainability,” Ocean Conservancy in collaboration with Malaysia, and the Malaysian Green Technology & Climate Change Centre (MGTC) and, will co-host a marine debris webinar series. The main objective of the webinar series is to explore options to build a new, innovative economy around waste and recycling in APEC economies in order to reduce marine litter, spur economic development and support the growth of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the region.

The seminar series will identify funding opportunities for innovative policies and technologies geared towards the circular economy, pathways to integrate APEC economy companies (including SMEs) into existing support networks and technology incubators, and methods to enable those companies to deploy their innovations in the markets where they are needed most.

Solutions to the plastics in the ocean crisis will require commitments on a global scale and from stakeholders at all levels. As we move towards overcoming these difficult times, we must make sure that we emerge from this period with an ocean that is more resilient and sustainable. As countries reinvigorate their economies and rebuild societal infrastructure, especially in response to the pandemic, we must all keep our eyes towards the future to ensure that both our communities and natural environment (including the ocean) can prosper. We can only achieve this by working together and by collaborating across regions.

The challenges facing the ocean and coastal communities cannot wait. The ocean is critical to life and livelihoods, and Ocean Conservancy will continue to work during these difficult times by supporting efforts to protect the ocean and its resources, and support coastal communities.

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