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Waste Not
Existing Technologies Can Stem Flow of Plastic into the Oceans by 80%

We know the problem; and, increasingly, we know how to solve it. It’s time for decision-makers, including leading global consumer brands that have been identified as part of the problem, to start taking the necessary steps to prevent plastic from ending up in the ocean, now.

Despite years of growing awareness, the flow of single-use plastics continues from and into communities around the world, through waterways, and into our oceans. An estimated 150 million metric tons is already in the ocean. But here is some good news – according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, we could quickly cut the volume of plastic ending up in global oceans by 80 percent using existing technologies.

“If we want to significantly reduce plastic leakage, we have the solutions at our fingertips,” Yoni Shiran, Program director at SYSTEMIQ and one of the authors of the report, told Sustainable Brands™. “Solutions need to be vastly scaled, better prioritized; and in some cases, complemented with additional — more effective — solutions.”

The report strongly argues in favor of immediate, strong, coordinated action. There is no more time to waste. Unfortunately, years of inaction — and intentional distortion by the plastics industry — has created a massive environmental crisis. We’re consuming and producing more plastic than even before, recycling less, and allowing far too much to end up in the ocean. And the surge in single-use plastic due to health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the crisis.

While the finger is often pointed at countries in AsiaChina, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are responsible for more ocean-bound plastic than the rest of the world combined — it is really a global problem. Until the end of 2017, the United States, Europe and Canada were shipping their waste plastic to these Asian countries, some of which was likely ending up in the ocean, because they couldn’t recycle it domestically.

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The new report brought together a diverse range of experts and scientists, with the goal of proposing an actionable plan for decision-makers to use. It highlights eight measures that they believe could reduce ocean plastic quickly — including reducing growth in plastic production, substituting some plastics with alternatives such as paper and compostable materials, designing products and packaging for recycling, and more. Brands are a key target of the report.

“The key message for business leaders is that we must significantly increase our ambition level to deal with this challenge,” Shiran says.

Brands are responsible and have a critically important role to play — due to their scale and the fact that many are transnational, with large footprints in the very countries that are key sources of ocean-bound plastic. According to an audit from the Break Free From Plastic coalition, plastic packaging products from Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Mars and other major CPG brands can be found all around the world.

“Corporations urgently need to do more to address the plastic pollution crisis they’ve created,” said Von Hernandez, global coordinator of the Break Free from Plastic movement, in a press statement. “Their continued reliance on single-use plastic packaging translates to pumping more throwaway plastic into the environment.”

There is hope, as many of these companies are part of global commitments such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, all of which hope to reduce plastic. Thus far, though, these commitments — all voluntary — do not go far enough.

“Current commitments, while a great first step, are completely insufficient,” Shiran says. “Most efforts are focused on recyclability and recycling. Not enough efforts are going towards shifting to new delivery models such as reuse and refill systems.”

The brands that act now and implement solutions will benefit, Shiran argues.

“Progressive companies who are incorporating the circular economy will have a big advantage in the system of tomorrow, and those who fail to adapt risk being priced out of the market,” he says. “We have almost all the plastic production and conversion capacity that we need to fulfil our needs until 2040. Any additional investment risks being stranded, and may be creating a ‘plastic bubble.’”

Delay will only make the problem bigger and clean-up more difficult. If we wait five years, an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic will end up in the ocean — which is why the report’s authors are laser-focused on how we can take action now.

We know the problem; and, increasingly, we know how to solve it. It’s time for decision-makers, including leading global consumer brands that have been identified as part of the problem, to start taking the necessary steps to prevent plastic from ending up in the ocean, now.


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