Breathing new life into Ocean plastic is still not tackling the real waste problem

Products created from plastic waste collected from the ocean are gaining traction. Innovative products are emerging onto the market as organisations take actions to help alleviate the mounting pressure of plastic waste in our seas, and seek to remove virgin plastic from their supply chains. In doing so, said products are also helping to raise awareness of the global waste problem.

The most prolific product of the moment being the new Adidas Parley range of Ocean plastic footwear and clothing. Adidas aren’t the only ones, for example eco-friendly cleaning company Method created the world’s first recovered ocean-plastic bottle in 2012. Bureo transform discarded fishing nets collected in Chile into performance skateboards, whilst Norton Point has a range of ocean plastic sunglasses. Many other companies are using a mix of recovered ocean plastics and other material in their products.

This movement is inspiring, but whilst championing ocean plastic products we need to ensure we don’t romanticise the innovation and creativity to the detriment of the key issue of plastic consumption and waste. We need to remember that this plastic is our household trash from yesterday and by turning it into tomorrow’s new products we're addressing the symptoms of the larger issue, rather than the root cause.

A comment on a recent Guardian article questioned what Adidas would do once there was no more ocean plastic left for shoes. That made me chuckle as there will always be plastic in the ocean. An eye opener into how unaware or how naive people are of the sheer scale of the problem – it’s potentially a 12.6 million tonnes per year problem according to the Marine Debris Working Group. As 38 million pieces of plastic have been found washed up on a remote and uninhabited South Pacific island and it has been predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, I don't think supply will become an issue anytime soon. Unless we as a human race stop using the ocean as a giant dumping ground we'll be pulling trash and plastic from the sea as long as we all shall live and then some more.

If you have visited Asia you will have witnessed the issue in all of its multicolour glory or perhaps that should be gory. With long coastlines and a heavy reliance on plastics, some of the worst ocean plastic offenders are Asian countries – Thailand, Indonesia, The Philippines, Vietnam and China to be precise. I am currently travelling through Asia and the story is the same wherever I go, countries drowning in waves of waste. Seemingly every river and beach is littered with plastic, and each new tide vomits new plastic goods onto the shore. What's worse is that few people seem to care enough to do anything about it as locals and business owners simply watch the waste pile up. More infuriating is tourists simply stepping over trash as they stroll along the beaches – I’m sure that pile of plastic didn’t make the cut of their carefully curated Instagram photos, pristine images only telling half of the story and further fuelling tourism.

Finding a long-term solution

Ramping up clean-up operations throughout Asia and the world ought to be a given for the sake of human health, if nothing else – if in any doubt take a look at the success of the Versosa beach clean-up in India, spearheaded by one individual and sparking a community wide movement. While R&D into new environmentally friendly materials which quash our plastic reliance should also be precedent for organisations; hitting the cause of the problem where it hurts lies in education and public awareness and heavy investment into safe waste disposal and recycling infrastructure.

Education for both children and adults is critical in the war on waste, everyone needs to understand the importance of keeping our oceans clean for the sake of marine life and our own future security. Given the reliance on fish as a staple in the diet, the dots need to be connected for people. Poor ocean health, poor marine health, poor human health. As plastic waste is finding its way into our food supply and could lead to expensive health issues in the future, waste education ought to be a priority for governments. It may sound obvious, but a guide I spoke to whilst in Malaysia noted that school children aren’t taught about the environment, they are taught to make money and gain status. A thankfully wonderful antidote to this is the Green School in Bali which educates for sustainability, inspiring youngsters to be the green leaders of tomorrow. They teach with three simple rules underlying every decision: be local, let your environment be your guide and envisage how your grandchildren will be affected by your actions. If Green School principles were adopted into mainstream school curriculums across the globe, we’d be surely heading in the right direction.

More pressing than a lack of suitable education, when it comes to plastic waste there is a huge obstacle which we keep banging our heads against, and that is waste disposal. Waste collection, waste treatment and recycling facilities are severely lacking in many Asian countries. From Jakarta's Bantar Gebang dump to Manila's "smoky mountain", open landfills blight Southeast Asia, unable to cope with the sheer volumes of waste they receive from ever increasing populations and consumerism. An eight-day fire at the Praeksa landfill site in Bangkok covered the city in poisonous smoke and started national debate over rubbish – also prompting the question of why must a situation reach a critical level before we take action to solve it?

It takes seconds to dredge up hundreds of pictures of polluted waterways and seas across Asia, and countries are starting to be shamed into action. Take Indonesia for example, pulled into the spotlight for being the second worse ocean polluter in the world after China, as of March 2017 the government has pledged £1 billion per year to clean the seas around its coastline. Still it will be a futile activity if the same investment is not committed to building and improving waste disposal and recycling infrastructure across the country. As a local if you haven't got anywhere to dispose of your rubbish, or if the current system is unreliable you can either dump your waste, burn it or let it wash away into the ocean. Even when you do have waste collection available to you, at current it isn’t effective. For example: waste collection in some Asian countries is improving and residents pay a minimal fee for collection, but if they don’t or can’t pay they simply dump their rubbish elsewhere with no incentive to pay the collection fees and no risk of prosecution. Until governments and businesses invest significantly into the correct facilities, systems and infrastructure the problem of plastic waste will not go away.

It’s not only governments who have a responsibility to act, it’s about time businesses made a real contribution and invested into waste disposal. I’m not talking about new waste companies - including energy-from-waste operations which are rapidly popping up across Asia as a new economy - but all global corporations operating in the region. If an organisation is licensed to sell a product within a certain country, it should also take a share of the responsibility in ensuring said products and packaging are disposed of in a safe manner – an organisation may talk of sustainability and corporate responsibility but if thousands of tonnes of its packaging ends up in the sea each year, where is the responsibility in that? Unilever is leading the way in this respect having announced that it will pilot a special sachet recycling plant in Indonesia later this year, sachet waste being a problem in developing countries. If this is a success, it could and should herald a new movement of big business taking responsibility for their own products and packaging at the end of the items’ lifecycle. Making it easy for consumers to be more environmentally conscious with waste ought to be high on any responsible business agenda. And it can be profitable, enabling organisations to become more circular in their operations by claiming back their own materials (and money) and then repurposing and reusing them is an extra incentive.

There is a long way to go but thankfully the world is opening its eyes and turning its attention to the problem. We're all in this together so let's enjoy the brands and products bringing ocean plastic waste to the forefront of our minds with innovation, let’s run with it and get on with pressuring governments and business into further action. Pressure them into taking responsibility for their own waste, to investing heavily into safe waste disposal and recycling systems and to educating the next generation to inspire responsible green leadership. With the United Nations Ocean Conference taking place in early June it will be interesting to see what actions and commitments come out of those discussions. We’ve got nearly 100 years of plastic waste to contend with and it’s certainly going to require a global effort to tackle it.

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