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To fully address the plastic waste challenge, it is urgent to capture as much of it as possible. Diverting ocean-bound plastics is a worthy cause, but it only scratches the surface of the broader challenge of mismanaged waste.
What’s in a name? Quite a bit, actually. Names are shorthand for the subject
being described, but names can bring along baggage of their own. One doesn’t
need to look much further than certain news outlets disparaging the veracity of
“global warming” during a blizzard to realize the monikers we choose can create
their own challenges in the court of public opinion.
“Ocean-bound” is another tricky term. It connotes that the object in question is
headed for the high seas, but that may not resonate when that object is a
plastic spork in a parking lot 15 miles from the nearest beach. When a consumer
hears “ocean plastic,” they expect that object to be pulled directly from the
ocean; but turning off the tap for ocean
flowing into our oceans is a much, much larger piece of the puzzle; and
ocean-bound plastic helps fill that gap. Everyone agrees that ocean plastic and
its impacts on the marine ecosystem are devastating, but many struggle to
connect the dots from a canal or poorly managed landfill to a coral reef
To unpack how this word became so contentious, let’s start with its origins in
PhD, a renowned
professor from the University of Georgia, is credited with popularizing the
ocean-bound term concept. She built a detailed model to track different types of
waste and to understand what happens when someone discards an object.
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Jambeck’s 2015 article in
Science explained that the majority of waste (including plastic waste) is not
destined for the ocean. However, there is a significant portion that will suffer
that fate. In fact, 31.9 million metric tons per year of waste generated within
coastal regions — defined as within 50 km of the coastline — is categorized as
mismanaged, which puts it at high risk of ending in the ocean. This percentage
has everything to do with human history, geography and serious global
deficiencies in waste management.
Jambeck’s research uncovered that the vast majority of ocean plastic originates
within 50 kilometers (or 30 miles) of the world’s coastlines. And while that is
a tiny fraction of the total global landmass, it is home to two billion people
who have over the generations built their cities, fishing villages and
livelihoods close to the oceans.
Nearly every major population center sits beside a major river, lake or ocean;
because water is an essential ingredient for agriculture, trade and life itself.
This abundance of people and commerce unsurprisingly creates more than one-third
of the total plastic waste generated each year. That means there’s a lot of
discarded plastic in close proximity to the watersheds, tributaries and
coastlines of the world’s oceans.
This would be less of a problem if humans were meticulous about capturing,
processing and recycling their waste; but this is all too often not the case.
The mismanagement of plastic waste inside that 50-kilometer area results in
roughly 8 million metric tons ending up in our oceans. So, the key to turning
off the tap on new ocean plastic is interventions that target this ocean-bound
Jambek’s 50-kilometer rule of thumb has gained a lot of traction. It’s logical,
it’s understandable and not particularly controversial. Any layperson presented
with this information would have a hard time arguing against its merits, and it
provides a useful framework to focus efforts on averting waste most likely bound
for the ocean.
This idea was also embraced by environmental activists,
committed to reducing ocean pollution; which have extensively highlighted sea
life and marine ecosystems plagued by plastic waste to hammer home the
importance of diverting ocean-bound plastic. But there isn’t a magical force
field at the 51st kilometer that prevents plastic waste originating from there
from ever finding its way to the ocean. Inland areas and the businesses and
people located there certainly aren’t exempt from the problem of mismanaged
To fully address the plastic waste challenge, it is urgent to capture as much of
it as possible; and to funnel the maximum amount into recycling programs.
Corporations and consumers can’t allow a mindset that some plastic waste is
somehow more palatable based on its point of origin or method of disposal. This
requires a new way to classify plastic waste and educate consumers on its
potential harms and proper management.
The convenience of designating plastic waste within the 50-kilometer range of a
coastline as ocean-bound serves a valuable purpose. It establishes a clear link
between the actions of those relatively near the oceans with its potential harm
to those same waters and its sea life.
But complex problems require complex solutions, which is why we can’t settle for
“ocean-bound.” Diverting ocean-bound plastics is a worthy cause, but it only
scratches the surface of the broader challenge of mismanaged waste. Plastics
classified as ocean-bound don’t constitute enough of the total plastic waste
volume to drive meaningful systemic change. They offer a catalyzing message, but
leave far too much plastic out of the equation.
To help consumers make informed decisions about the environmental impact of
their purchases, additional tiers of classification are needed that encompass
the range of potential environmental impacts created by plastic waste.
Processors are “checking the box” for ocean-bound, but millions of tons of
plastic waste that might be recycled remain on the sidelines, littering our
streets, filling our landfills and polluting other corners of the natural world.
There are no magical lines in the sand when it comes to reducing and recycling
as much plastic waste as possible.
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and ocean plastic? Join us on October 7 for our 30-minute, free, live online
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Published Sep 10, 2020 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Rob Ianelli is founder & President of Oceanworks, the global marketplace for recycled ocean plastic products and materials.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.