Key recommendations failed to understand plastic pollution from a holistic perspective — placing too much blame on the five most impacted Asian countries and suggesting carbon-heavy options for disposal.
In 2015, the journal Science published a landmark study sounding the alarm bells about the global plastic crisis.
The report’s lead author attempted to estimate the amount of plastic entering the oceans just in 2010 — putting an educated, lowball estimate at 4.8 million metric tons, with a higher estimate as high as 12.7 million. The study also ranked all 192 coastal countries according to their perceived plastic leakage into the ocean.
Later that year, marine advocacy non-profit Ocean Conservancy released its own report, Stemming the Tide, which with outside consultants built upon the estimates published in Science. While the group’s report was lauded as a welcome addition to the primary study, Ocean Conservancy’s ultimate conclusion was focused on incineration and waste-to-energy as the main solutions for disposing of plastic — putting significant onus and strain on five South Asian countries (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) on the receiving end of much of the world’s wealthiest nations’ plastic waste.
“We advanced a misguided narrative and failed to acknowledge the role that wealthy countries like the US play in exporting waste,” Ocean Conservancy VP of ocean plastics Nick Mallos told Sustainable Brands®.
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The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) — a global network working toward a just and waste-free world without incineration — issued a formal critique of the report shortly after its release, but the influence of both reports was significant. According to GAIA Asia Pacific regional director Froilan Grate, in the years following their release, several consumer products giants shifted toward the chemical and burning methods of plastic management recommended in Stemming the Tide.
In July 2022, Ocean Conservancy issued a formal apology and rescinded the report after developing a deeper understanding of its negative impact. Included in the mea culpa:
“In Stemming the Tide, Ocean Conservancy focused solely on minimizing the amount of plastics entering the ocean. We investigated and included incineration and waste-to-energy as acceptable solutions to the ocean plastic crisis, which was wrong. We failed to confront the root causes of plastic waste or incorporate the effects on the communities and NGOs working on the ground in the places most impacted by plastic pollution. We did not consider how these technologies support continued demand for plastic production and hamper the move to a circular economy and a zero-carbon future. Further, by focusing so narrowly on one region of the world (East and Southeast Asia), we created a narrative about who is responsible for the ocean plastic pollution crisis — one that failed to acknowledge the outsized role that developed countries, especially the United States, have played and continue to play in generating and exporting plastic waste to this very region. This too was wrong.
“We apologize for the framing of this report and unequivocally rescind any direct or indirect endorsement of incineration as a solution to ocean plastic pollution. Accordingly, Stemming the Tide is no longer available on our website and we have ceased all promotion and reference of it. Waste management and recycling remain critical to solving plastic pollution, but these strategies must be paired with greater efforts to reduce virgin plastic production and as part of a larger move toward a circular economy. Incineration is antithetical to these efforts and to Ocean Conservancy’s commitment to a healthier ocean protected by a more just world.”
Mallos says the process changed the way the NGO looks at plastic reduction, including no longer recommending incineration as a solution.
“It’s important that we, or any entity evaluating it, ensure that we are asking questions to all stakeholders and all experts — ensuring that those affected by the solutions are also at the table,” he adds.
In September, GAIA announced that it completed the first step of a “restorative justice program” with Ocean Conservancy in an effort to roll back some of the damage it says was caused by the 2015 supplemental report.
Indicative of a much larger problem
Grate says Stemming the Tide “pushed a narrative for investment in bad solutions” and directly impacted work on the ground to reduce plastic pollution and its environmental effects — work that preceded the report by at least a decade. He notes that the local communities mentioned were not consulted before the report was released — and that points to a common disconnect in the way global organizations think about how to resolve the plastic pollution problem.
“There’s no way to (properly) manage all of the waste countries like the US and others send to Asia,” Grate says. “Ocean Conservancy just happens to be the headline for this; but for us, we would even say that the report itself is the manifestation of a bigger problem.”
He adds that there has to be better linkage between the decisions being made in the corporate headquarters of the Global North and the affected communities on the ground in the Global South.
A more purposeful partnership moving forward
Primarily, meaningful progress must include global players ensuring that everyone who needs to be at the table is offered the opportunity in a meaningful way.
“We hope Ocean Conservancy has the space to hear from impacted communities,” Grate says.
GAIA welcomed the organization’s apology and noted it came “from a genuine place,” hoping it moves towards “meaningful action.”
As for Ocean Conservancy, Mallos says they’re deeply appreciative of GAIA’s work and are identifying opportunities where Ocean Conservancy can play a more proactive role in figuring out upstream solutions for the plastic issue.
“There were data points that were not factored in, not enough time spent speaking with those that know the reality of (what those numbers mean),” Mallos says of the 2015 report. “They were not included to the extent they should have been. We are deeply appreciative of the conversations that got us here and are eager to work with more partners moving forward.”