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Help for a Plastic Planet: New Report Focuses on Solutions to Global Plastic Pollution

The report offers real solutions, in addition to an excellent scientific accounting of the threats posed by plastic pollution to the environment, wildlife, humans and economies.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Stephane Bidouze

In the most remote places on Earth with few or no humans present... (o)ne can find substantial quantities of plastic debris.

These discouraging words introduce a new report from an international scientific and technical advisory panel entitled "Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem: Introducing a Solutions Based Framework Focused on Plastic." But the report is encouraging for several reasons. First, the report clearly identifies the problem so it can be the focus of solutions: the problem is plastic:

Man-made debris in the oceans is now found from the poles to the equator and from shorelines, estuaries and the sea surface to ocean floor. While the types and absolute quantities vary, it is clear that plastic materials represent the major constituents of this debris, and there is no doubt about the ubiquity of such debris on a truly global scale.

Many conferences and documents on the subject of "Marine Debris," especially those funded by industry, have been evasive about plastic: the single most destructive and overwhelmingly most common substance of concern in the waste material that washes from our shores to oceans and back onto shores around the globe. The significance of plastics being singled out as the main source of marine debris around the globe is that plastic production continues to increase at a rate of about 9 percent annually and the waste from it is cumulative: "Since most plastic items will not biodegrade in the environment it seems inevitable that quantities of debris will increase over time..." (Andrady 2011). 

The second reason for hope is that the report offers real solutions, and a methodology to choose them, in addition to an excellent scientific accounting of the many threats posed by plastic pollution to the environment, wildlife, humans and our economies. The solutions specified in the report take account of the fact that the vast majority of communities around the globe are not able to manage non-biodegradable plastic waste because there is no plastic recycling infrastructure or market, and the volume of plastic waste overwhelms landfill capacity. Furthermore, the report acknowledges that plastics are produced and marketed around the globe by corporations that must take part in effective management of the resulting plastic waste. United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner is quoted in the report with a message he delivered to the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in 2011:

Marine debris -- trash in our oceans -- is a symptom of our throw-away society and our approach to how we use our natural resources. It affects every country and every ocean and shows us in highly visible terms the urgency of shifting towards a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy... However, one community or one country acting in isolation will not be the answer. We need to address marine debris collectively across national boundaries and with the private sector, which has a critical role to play both in reducing the kinds of wastes that can end up in the world's oceans, and through research into new materials. It is by bringing all these players together that we can truly make a difference.

Significantly, the report focuses on pre-consumer solutions that have been largely ignored in the governmental discourse on marine plastic pollution to date. The report states:

Current awareness and implementation of best practices in addressing the causes of marine debris are primarily centered on end-of-pipe solutions. However, a substantial, but relatively neglected, underlying cause that results in plastic debris entering the sea from the land lies within unsustainable production and consumption patterns. This includes the design and marketing of products internationally without appropriate regard for their environmental fate or ability to be recycled in the locations where sold, inadequate waste management infrastructure, and inappropriate disposal. Often there is geographical separation between production in relatively developed economies and consumption/disposal which is global. From a life-cycle perspective, the current linear use of most plastics from production, through a typically short-lived usage stage to disposal, is a major barrier as well as a major opportunity to tackling the challenge of marine debris.

The report recommends the following itemized strategies be implemented to choose solutions on a regional basis, taking into account the types of plastic waste accumulating in the specific region and regional capacity to manage the waste:

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