Plastic Ocean Waste: The Next Problem for Business to Solve

The ubiquity of plastic means that we all have a unique relationship with the material. It plays a big role in our lives. It keeps our food fresh. It stops the consumable goods we buy from getting damaged. Its durability, resilience and ability to be transparent or printed upon makes it a very attractive material of choice for brands everywhere.

But it’s also causing a big environmental problem. Our throwaway habits and piecemeal recycling infrastructure means that so much of our waste plastic ends up in our oceans and on our beaches. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, 12 billion tonnes of plastic will have been produced and thrown away in little more than 30 years.

By 2050, there will be more plastic swimming in our oceans than fish.

Slowly but surely, the problem of plastic has become as serious and seemingly catastrophic and in need of urgent action as carbon dioxide. But unlike that air-borne and largely invisible pollutant, plastic is highly visible and tangible, even for the most uninterested of onlookers. There is no escaping the problem of plastic, one of the most highly emotive forms of environmental destruction happening in our world today.

Media coverage and popular TV shows like the BBC’s Blue Planet II have helped to educate just what impact plastic waste is having on our ecosystems. Seabirds and fish regularly eat plastic by accident, something that is likely to have a detrimental impact on human health also as the material enters our own food system. By the end of the century, people that regularly eat seafood could be consuming 780,000 pieces of plastic a year.

Just as has happened with climate change, policy makers are beginning to react to the challenge of clearing up the plastic legacy mess before its too late, particularly in Europe. The UK’s latest 25-year plan for the environment featured plastic waste heavily, suggesting an expansion of the plastic bag charge as well as deposit return schemes for plastic bottles, something that has been a huge success across Scandinavia and Germany.

On the global stage, the UN Sustainable Development Goals is helping to focus minds on ocean protection; a number of governments have collectively rallied to support the implementation of SDG14, to reverse the decline of our ocean ecosystems.

But as we have seen with carbon emissions reduction, there will be much expectation for the business community to respond with commitments, targets and specific solutions to the plastic waste problem.

We are already starting to see that happen. The UK media company Sky recently announced a £25 million Innovation Fund – using its own money and encouraging others to join the charge – as it works out ways to tackle single-use plastics in the economy. Sky itself has made pledges to eliminate all single-use plastic from its own operations and along its supply chain in the next two years.

Much of this business response will be driven by greater consumer interest and awareness of the problem – as well as a growing irritation and companies should be doing more to help turn the tide. Grassroots campaigns to clear waterways of plastic waste and clean up beaches have helped to galvanise support; business inaction will not be acceptable in the very near future.

As the world wakes up to the devastation plastic is causing, the appetite to do something about it is greater than ever.