The number of tons of plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans every year (Source: UN). Ocean plastic pollution is one of the most pressing problems of our time. Although several solutions have been implemented, it seems that the problem is getting worse. Why do we continue to pollute our oceans? What can we do better?

Productivism, consumerism and the 'plasticized' society

We live in a plasticized society. Overproduction of goods and excessive consumption are the engines of the neo-liberal productivist system. Producing, buying, throwing away and buying again is the process that must never stop for the sake of infinite growth. However, our planet has limited resources and what once seemed like progress, has now become our tragedy. We are flooded with litter and especially with plastic.

In 2018 alone, plastic production reached 360 million tons – about 40 kg per person – and it is estimated that by 2025 this figure will have doubled (Source: von Wysocki 2019). According to Greenpeace, only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, 12% incinerated and the remaining 70% has gone to landfills or to one of the 5 Garbage Patches in the oceans. Waste management measures are insufficient in the face of the mass production of plastic and therefore it ends up in our oceans. When plastic reaches the sea, it takes decades and even hundreds of years to degrade. Ocean pollution is seen as one of the most important transnational pollution problems of our time. About 80% of the plastic that leaks into the ocean comes from Asian countries including China, Indonesia, and the Philippines (Jambeck et al., 2015). Rivers and water bodies are the major transport pathways for marine plastic, and it is estimated that up to 2.41 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans via rivers each year (Schmidt et al. 2017).

NooS · 8 Million tons per year: the marine plastic pollution

The consequences of plastic overproduction

The environmental impact of plastic pollution threatens not only the health of marine ecosystems, but also human food security, and contributes to global warming. Birds and marine mammals easily mistake plastic for prey. Many starve to death as the plastic particles stay in their stomachs and hinder their food intake. Others die from lacerations, infections, or suffocation in fishing nets. 750,000 marine species are threatened, as the largest ecosystem on earth is flooded with plastic from the surface to the bottom of the seabed (plastic has been found at a depth of 10,000 meters) (Source: IUCN). Small plastic particles (smaller than 5 mm), also known as microplastic, are especially harmful and dangerous to the environment and our lives. Today, microplastics are found in the water we drink, the products we use and the marine animals we consume. While the effect on the human body has not yet been thoroughly studied, it is known that chemicals used in the production of plastic can contribute to the development of cancer and endocrine disruption.

Technology at the service of oceans health

By 2050 it is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans if measures are not taken today to regulate (or end) the use of plastic (Source: UN). Although the situation is alarming, different organizations, social enterprises, and governments have joined in the international fight against marine plastic pollution. One of these agents of change is Boyan Slat, a Dutch scientist, who in 2013 founded the organization The Ocean Cleanup to develop giant water filters able to remove plastic from the Great Pacific garbage patch –that is 3 times the size of France. The filters collect plastic waste –including microplastic–- that is propelled towards them by the ocean current, at a maximum depth of three meters, to avoid having a negative impact on marine wildlife. After several technical challenges and criticisms from the scientific community due to possible negative impacts to the marine ecosystem, in 2019 the filter system collected garbage from the Pacific Patch for the first time. In the same year, Slat directed his solutions towards the major transport pathway of plastic –the rivers–, and launched the Interceptor. This is a boat-shaped device capable of collecting 100,000 kg of garbage per day, under optimal conditions. The Ocean Cleanup aims to tackle the 1000 most polluting rivers before the end of 2025. The Interceptor operates autonomously, is powered by solar energy, and its floating barrier covers only part of the river, meaning that the mobility of boats and wildlife will not be affected. Currently, three Interceptors are operating in Jakarta (Indonesia), Klang (Malaysia) and Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). Trash collected from oceans and rivers is taken ashore for recycling.

OCEANETS is another innovative project that uses technology to address marine pollution from abandoned or discarded fishing nets, which can continue to catch marine wildlife –known as “ghost fishing”. Studies have revealed that between 640,000 and 800,000 tons of fishing nets are lost annually and can remain in the oceans for up to 600 years. Although these nets only represent 10% of the ocean’s plastic pollution, a study conducted by Greenpeace in 2019 found that up to 70% of the plastic found floating in the oceans is related to fishing. OCEANETS aims to develop GPS tools that allow the geolocation of oceanic waste (mostly fishing nets) to recover, process, and reuse the plastic in the textile industry. The objective is to guarantee the viability of a circular economy of lost fishing equipment.

Collective work and a paradigm shift

collaboration to ensure efficient and scalable solutions. The Ocean Cleanup and OCEANETS are some of the most innovative projects to save our oceans, but in isolation they will not be able to generate the impact needed to address this pressing problem. The root of the problem is the overproduction and consumption of plastic. Governments, research institutes, and academia need to work collectively to redesign products and rethink their use and disposal. Moreover, the industry must assume its responsibility as corporate citizen by stopping the production of disposable single-use plastic. An increasing number of conscious consumers are demanding a change; they are shaping a sustainable production system with their purchasing decisions. If companies want to ensure customers’ loyalty, they must increase their efforts in the fight against plastic pollution. Recycling is no longer enough; the planet needs a shift of paradigm, from one of perpetual consumption to one in which “less is more”.

Photography credit – Cover: Lubofsky