Putting an end to marine plastic pollution

Joao Sousa, Senior Programme Officer at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, spoke to International Editor Clifford Holt about the problem of marine plastic pollution and some of the potential solutions.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), every year over 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced, half of which is used to design single-use items such as shopping bags, cups, and straws. At least eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year and make up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.

Plastic pollution has a significant social, economic and ecological impact. Marine plastics threaten ocean health, human health, food safety and coastal tourism as well as contributing to climate change.

To better understand the extent of plastic pollution, the IUCN has produced several analytical pieces of work and is supporting various policy and programmatic actions. The innovation Platform’s International Editor, Clifford Holt, spoke with Joao Sousa, Senior Programme Officer on Marine Plastics at the IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, about some of the ways that marine plastic pollution could be tackled.

What would you say are the biggest challenges when it comes to tackling plastic pollution? Have there been any specific developments in this fight that you feel have potential to make some headway?

Regarding plastic pollution, an important point to make is that plastic is not one material but a family of materials, and as such there is not only one solution. Indeed, plastic is a family of polymers which can create a multitude of problems, meaning that diverse solutions need to be developed. What is more, any potential solution depends on the specific polymer type, and that also needs to take into account how it is used, how it is disposed of, and so on. It therefore becomes clear that even here, for one type of plastic, many problems can emerge. Nevertheless, many of the problems relate to single use plastics in a general sense because those are the ones with a very short life-span.

It is thus necessary to understand that the issues around plastics and plastic pollution are more complex than they may first seem, and then, of course, that we need to ensure that these issues place high on the political agenda. That is, while plastics are being highlighted in terms of pollution in a general sense, when it comes to the challenges facing the oceans, the issue of plastics is just one of several important problems – including deoxygenation, acidification, melting ice caps, and so on. These problems all need to be addressed, and often plastic pollution is seen as being less of a priority.

A second significant challenge concerns groups who do not want to see a change and who have a very strong voice in this area. Their capacity to hinder promising legislation, for example, should not be taken lightly. Third, there is a lack of enforcement of existing legislation. The answer is not necessarily for all governments to follow the same path as some countries, for instance, by banning certain plastic products and introducing a large fine for breaching the ban. However, relying on voluntary measures alone is never going to be enough; history has shown us that if people are merely asked to stop, then many will continue until more forceful measures are introduced.

I am an advocate for the ‘polluter cleans’ principle, whereby the polluter is required to fully clean up, no matter the financial cost of the operation. Bankruptcy in other areas has been used as a way to get out of paying for remediation as it is not high on creditors’ list of priorities. Only by making organisations responsible for cleaning up after their own activities will we be able to affect change.

The United Nations Environmental Programme has identified that it is possible to estimate the financial impact of plastic pollution in the oceans. However, there is a real need for more granular data, knowledge about local impacts in local economies, concrete data, and for a tool that I can use to address the Minister of Economy in any given country to demonstrate how much money their country has lost because they have mismanaged plastics. We want to be able to put this into real terms, and to be able to tell them, for instance, that if they had managed plastics properly then they would have saved enough money to build a certain number of hospitals, or to show them the impacts of the mismanagement in terms of the impacts on sectors such as tourism and fisheries, as well as in terms of the loss of biodiversity, because all of these things can be quantified.

We are currently conducting a project to develop such a tool, which involves taking a snapshot of the entire amount of plastic waste that is generated by a country, as well as the associated leakage, over time. This will enable us to demonstrate how that waste is converted into lost money for the economy and, moreover, what that money could have meant to the country – it is often not enough to highlight this in terms of money per se, but when it is explained in terms of the amount of new schools or hospitals which could have been built, people tend to take more notice.

In terms of new developments in the fight against plastic waste which appear to be making some headway, many new businesses are being established which purport to offer solutions. However, they have often simply reshuffled their technology approach, or have perhaps identified a specific niche which means that they will be able to address one single type of plastic – and these tend to be those of high value, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). What is more, many prototypes are never scaled up and never reach the market, and so there needs to be a mechanism to fund innovative ideas into action at a global level.

Furthermore, many businesses are focusing on making new plastics which biodegrade in a short space of time. However, the materials they are designed to replace are being used because of their durability. If this durability is traded off in favour of enhanced degradability, then the new material will not be a suitable replacement. Such new materials could then be put forward as simply being a constituent material of a single use item. However, alternatives for these already exist.

Simply put, plastics have evolved over time to the materials we see today, beginning with a material for one specific function which was then added to and modified for a second application, and so on. In the future, when a new application area opens up and there is no suitable material solution, it will hopefully be possible to input the various requirements and variables into a computer program which will then develop the chemical formula of a new material that meets all of the needs. This, when realised, will be a huge step forwards in terms of material chemistry.

Addressing plastic pollution at its source is crucial, and the ‘National Guidance for Plastic Pollution Hotspotting and Shaping Action’ is a guide for countries, regions, and cities to develop strategic plans for tackling plastic pollution. How do you hope this guide will come to be used?

The guide is the best tool we have at the moment for providing a snapshot or footprint of the plastic waste in a specific place. The guidance is a tool to assess a country’s plastic footprint using all the available information on the inputs and outputs of plastic across the system. It provides a baseline from which a country can make decisions at a national level and can also be used to track progress over time. Furthermore, it has the potential to be adapted to lower scales, too. It can show, for instance, whether one hotspot is the result of a lack of enforcement in terms of national policy, or perhaps because that country has been importing plastic waste from another that simply finds its way into landfills – this is quite a common practice in developing countries, which are often recipients of waste from more developed economies in what is often seen as ‘co-operation’. However, this so-called ‘co-operative’ relationship can sometimes be abused – I have seen instances where a country has agreed to take used trucks from another country, and it was later found that these vehicles had been filled with used tyres.

Once the reasons behind why an area has become a hotspot for plastic waste have been identified, it is then necessary to search for a solution, However, this has to be approached sensitively; no country is going to want someone from the outside telling them they are doing things badly; rather, they need to be informed/advised that they have a problem and offered a guide on how to tackle it. The guidance therefore helps governments and corporations explore potential solutions to a problem that has not yet been quantified. We have been applying the guidance using a participatory process involving different stakeholders and this approach needs to be promoted to ensure its results are adapted and acted upon.

Do you feel there are any particular barriers to improving circularity in the plastic value chain?

It should be acknowledged that the main barrier is the polymer in itself, in that it is not designed to be recycled from polymer to monomer and then back to polymer once more indefinitely. Current (mechanical) recycling techniques mean that this can be achieved just a few times before the chemicals that are crucial to the plastic’s function – to achieve fire retardation etc. – begin to be released.

At the risk of sounding overly cynical, I have seen places where plastics are separated just for them all to go on to be incinerated anyway. Of course, some might say that this is a way of training the population to separate their waste streams while the recycling infrastructure is developed so that once it is operational this will have become the norm and there will be a significant reduction in contamination etc. However, while there may be an element of truth to this, I don’t believe that this is always the case.

Both governments and business have a role to play in determining policies and actions to support circularity. Supporting circularity by creating a market for recycled plastic is a role that governments can play here. They could, for instance, only procure items that are made with no less than 20% recycled content – perhaps chairs and tables for schools would be a place to start. This would trigger suppliers to begin working in a different, more sustainable direction. And yet, I am still to see this kind of green procurement being practised.

Of course, the price of oil and gas is coupled to plastics, and so if the cost of one drops then so does the cost of the other, meaning that recycling plastics can be seen to make little economic sense, making circularity less likely. However, if a mechanism is introduced whereby certain items must be manufactured with a minimum percentage of recycled plastics, and with this minimum increasing over time, then a market for recycled plastic will be created.

There is currently no standard methodology to measure the extent of the plastic problem. How could this be addressed?

The term ‘standard’ first needs to be defined because a standard is something that is commonly accepted by most governments. Via our reports, we have therefore attempted to gain a better understanding of how plastic waste can be measured in a way that is consistent worldwide.

There are two basic approaches that can be taken to this. One is top-down, where you look, for instance, at how much a country imports, how much is used, how much is in stock, how much is converted, and then you can understand how much is thrown away or is exported as products and so on. Then, there is a bottom-up approach, which involves visiting residential landfills to conduct audits of what people are throwing away – which sees a team open 400 refuse bags before separating and counting the plastics found inside.

We began the first modelling exercises five years ago to get a better understanding of the sources of plastics.

We feel that this is the best way to start the discussion about the need for standard methods for quantification, and this is why we have partnered with UNEP. Indeed, standards are going to be crucial moving forwards – even at the basic level of coastal clean-ups, if one is taking place in Portugal and they find and log 10,000 bottles and 2,000 plastic bags, while another taking place in Spain records the weight of the plastic they have recovered, then the two data sets are not comparable (of course, it is possible to calculate how many plastic bags have been found from the total weight by weighing a single bag, but that is not going to be 100% accurate). With normalised data, however, all the data can be inputted into a platform and comparisons are then enabled.

We have applied the hotspot guidance in Africa – in South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, and Tanzania – as well as in Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Thailand) and in Cyprus and Menorca, Spain. Through this work, we have learnt the practical considerations of applying a methodology across countries of differing economic status, which is important if we want to have a standard methodology. We are now working with SIDS in the Caribbean and Pacific using a cross top-down/bottom-up approach to gain a better understanding of the plastic that is being generated in terms of waste per country and per sector, and also in which pathways they reach the ocean.

We are therefore continuing to develop platforms that can be used for better decision making, one of which is designed to provide economic evaluations of the impact of plastic waste, while another enables a visualisation of the global trends, with users able to zoom down onto individual countries to see information on relationships with the status of endangered species, plastic pollution situations, the types of plastic being discarded, and so on.

This level of precision will enable us to identify the average amount of plastic produced by any one sector in a given country per year. Furthermore, when additional layers of data are added and when algorithms are used to make correlations between the data sets, valuable information starts to emerge, and it is possible to understand why things are happening.

Can you tell me a little about ‘The Marine Plastic Footprint – Towards a science-based metric for measuring plastic leakage and increasing the materiality and circularity of plastic’, which comprises a plastic footprint methodology that aims to help companies set priorities for developing circular economy approaches for tackling plastic pollution?

Some six years ago, we wanted to know more about why people were becoming so concerned about microbeads. We therefore launched workshops which included different stakeholders to better understand whether this was indeed a cause for concern. From this, we realised that while the main emphasis on the discussions around microbeads was being placed on cosmetics, there was also a need for this to widen and so include all the other sources of primary microplastics.

We went on to launch the ‘Marine Plastic Footprint’ report because we wanted to better understand the whole picture. This was not designed to simply point out that some industries and companies are creating products which pollute the environment; we also wanted to show them that these products can be replaced with more environmentally-friendly substitutes without incurring significant costs. Furthermore, such products would also be preferred by consumers.

When we began to compile the report, we agreed that if there is a footprint, then we need to understand how much not only an individual produces, but also how much is produced at the company, sector, and even country level. The idea being that it may be possible to help companies adopt potential alternatives and therefore reduce their impact. For instance, tourism and fisheries are probably the main source of income for many small island developing states, but these sectors are probably also the biggest contributor to that state’s pollution. But we don’t simply go and tell them that they need to change the way they operate; rather, we tell them that they are hurting themselves and that there is a way to fix it.

What are your thoughts on how plastic pollution is being addressed in the EU – via the Circular Economy Action Plan, the Plastics Strategy, and the Single-Use Plastics Directive? What more now needs to be done?

Any action or activity towards tackling plastic waste is, of course, welcome. However, when we look at the items most frequently found on a shoreline, they tend to be those that float – plastic bags, bottles, and so on. However, the majority of polymers have a density higher than water, which means they sink. As such, policy actions should not only focus on the plastics that are found but should be based on a thorough study of what objects are being discarded.

In addition, and to return to a previous point, we cannot rely on voluntary measures alone; there has to be a move from commitment to something a little more substantial. That does not necessarily have to mean mandatory measures, but perhaps something like a club, where those who wish to be members have to pay a fee – and, in this context, the ‘fee’ would be in the form of not using certain materials, or ensuring the removal of others. If such an organisation existed, then those paying the fee would abide by the rules, and, of course, this would also foster better economic and border relations between the members. Such an approach is even more important when it is considered that plastic pollution is not at the top of the list of priorities for many countries; it places below other concerns such as ensuring job and food security for citizens, climate change, and so on. As such, if addressing plastic waste is only ever voluntary, there will always be reasons as to why it is not being prioritised.

The Circular Economy Action Plan, the Plastics Strategy, and the Single-Use Plastics Directive are all good first steps, and they are all going in the right direction, but we need more concrete action if we are going to see tangible results.

To again return to a previously-made point: why can’t manufacturers be told that they are only allowed to make plastic products if they use a certain percentage of recycled plastics? This would create a market for recycled plastic, which is the beginning of a circular economy. Of course, recycled plastics are unsuitable for certain products – such as food packaging, for instance – but for many others they are fine.

Of course, the first response of policy makers often tends to go for the low hanging fruit, such as the plastics we find on our beaches, And yet, there is a need for more ‘radical’ approaches to be considered – not necessarily immediately adopted, but they should certainly be considered. Such as, for instance, burning old tyres to fuel cement kilns, something that is already being done in Germany. Here, we need to understand that most of these tyres are made from synthetic rubber, and so the oil to produce them has already been used, and as this type of rubber is increasingly seen as being unsuitable for use in applications such as asphalt, the options of what to do with them at the end of their lives are extremely limited. As such, perhaps burning them is a viable alternative to just dumping them in a landfill. But first we need to ask what the economic and environmental costs and benefits are going to be. If it is decided that this should not be done, we then need to ask what are we going to do with them. They cannot be recycled because of their multiple layers, and the same is true of many plastics. And they cannot continue to be sent to landfill because plastic will not biodegrade for around 1,000 years and if we continue to dump plastic – and other items such as tyres – into landfills, then they will quickly become full. Indeed, many such sites in Cyprus are already at 95% capacity. Diverting plastic from landfill thus adds more life to the site. And yet, such issues are rarely debated. Some may argue that a directive or strategy or action plan is the first step to answering these questions and I am therefore being impatient. But these are issues that need to be discussed now.

With all of these challenges in mind, I increasingly believe that a ‘bring-in, bring-out’ approach is needed in many instances – if a company wants to sell, for instance, a drink in a plastic bottle in a certain country, then they should also be responsible for taking that plastic back out. To take bottled water as an example: the companies make a huge return as the water they package is obtained at such a low cost – they are essentially selling plastic, not water – and so their profit margins should allow them to take responsibility for their waste, rather than leaving this to either consumers or municipalities.

This idea, of course, would likely be met with resistance and would be very unpopular in some quarters. But the waste that we are seeing today leaves us in a much worse situation. As such, this is a dialogue that needs to be opened; we need to have a conversation around such approaches which involves multiple stakeholders so that we can see what can be done. It also requires a change in consumer behaviour through more education and awareness.

I will therefore continue to focus on this area, as well as on evaluating the economic effects of mismanaging plastic waste and relaying that to the countries in question as we gain a better understanding of where the waste is coming from and where we need to focus our efforts in terms of future solutions.

Joao Sousa
Senior Programme Officer
Global Marine and Polar Programme
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
+41 22 999 02 25
Tweet @IUCN

Please note, this article will also appear in the fourth edition of our new quarterly publication.

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