How to turn the tide on marine plastic waste

How to turn the tide on marine plastic waste

A student joins the plastic ocean swimming challenge organised by a Bangkok school to mark World Oceans Day in 2019. A pool was filled with plastic bottles to resemble what oceans could be like if people don't take action.  Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul
A student joins the plastic ocean swimming challenge organised by a Bangkok school to mark World Oceans Day in 2019. A pool was filled with plastic bottles to resemble what oceans could be like if people don't take action. Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

A few weeks ago, I had the honour of speaking at the 2022 UN Ocean Conference (UNOC), which called for a new chapter of ocean action driven by science, technology and innovation.

The conference focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 -- Life Below Water -- to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources. Participants stressed the critical need for scientific knowledge and marine technology to solve the issues of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change that place the ocean in peril.

Throughout the conference we were constantly reminded that SDG 14 is currently the most underfunded goal -- a significant concern given how central the health of the ocean is to the well-being of our people and planet.

Bordered by two oceans -- the Pacific and the Indian -- with 3,148 kilometres of coastline across 23 provinces, Thailand has a particularly close relationship with the sea, which is the mainstay of its aquaculture industry, one of the world's largest, and its tourism sector.

The Thai government has made commitments to preserving this essential resource, vowing to accelerate marine conservation, champion sustainable fishing and reduce waste in waterways. At UNOC 2022, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa echoed these commitments, citing the recent recovery in marine resources and protected areas.

The developments in Thailand reflect the larger landscape. It was clear at the conference that key stakeholders across policy, technology, manufacturing, innovation and more are highly driven to mobilise and solve this issue together. The question is, how can we turn this energy into concrete action?

BUILDING KNOWLEDGE

The conference's focus on science and technology demonstrates the opportunities to support ocean action. Science and technology can help us find alternative solutions, increase circularity and improve waste management. These are essential for us to scale local and regional action to tackle marine plastic pollution and further ocean conservation globally.

As part of efforts to develop its bio-circular-green (BCG) economy, Thailand has set a target for the bio-based sector to contribute up to 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2037. This means bioplastics will play a larger role across the supply chain.

However, there remain significant gaps in the local industry's expertise. For example, many people may not know that bioplastic products can have different levels and conditions of biodegradability, and that some involve carbon-intensive manufacturing processes that make them less sustainable than petroleum-based plastics.

Evidence-based insights can be used to fill such knowledge gaps and promote greater scientific understanding of the challenges and opportunities we face when addressing marine plastic waste. The Incubation Network has collaborated with RRS Asia to develop the Circularity Concepts learning series to increase access to reliable knowledge about the plastic circular economy. Modules cover topics such as bioplastics, extended producer responsibility, advanced recycling technologies, plastic credits and more.

More needs to be done to transfer knowledge about bioplastics -- among other topics -- to encourage materials innovation, scale solutions and educate the broader industry to incorporate bioplastics into sustainable packaging and sourcing.

SCIENCE SERVING PEOPLE

Science and technology must serve everyone, including those who are most affected by the issue. We need to ensure these essential tools do not only inform debate for high-level policymakers, but that they are used to develop pragmatic solutions to improve the lives of people who rely on the oceans and coastal resources for their livelihoods while conserving the environment. They must be involved in the process -- both as contributors to ideas and providers of data, as well as users of knowledge and solutions.

For example, we know that rivers contribute between 1 million and 2 million tonnes of the plastic waste that end up in the oceans each year, and that Asia is home to the world's top 20 polluting rivers. However, one cannot solve this issue by simply banning local communities from using plastic or disposing their waste into rivers.

Riverside households in Thailand rely on waterways -- many use the Chao Phraya River to wash their clothes, while others operate small fish farms which use plastic nets. Due to increased urbanisation, households are using products with more plastic packaging, while not being provided effective waste management infrastructure and education to dispose of such waste.

We will not be able to achieve our sustainability goals as a society if we do not take into account local communities and their livelihoods and include them in the process of developing effective waste management solutions.

This approach must also include informal waste workers in redefining the waste management and recycling infrastructure. A great example is the Bina Karta Lestari (Bintari) Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Indonesia involved in our Leakage and Livelihoods programme, that developed the Ambilin app which helps waste collectors simplify their pick-up services for waste and recyclable materials. The app helps workers collect recyclable plastic more efficiently, therefore reducing costs such as petrol and in turn earn higher incomes.

There is a clear need to reduce investment risk in sustainability solutions and encourage innovative financial solutions to support the growing scientific activity focused on reducing plastic waste.

At the conference I was inspired by the different ways that capital can be deployed and the creative financing instruments that various organisations and philanthropies are using.

A particular area of funding interest is blue carbon -- carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrass, which can be used as offsets in the carbon credit market. The great news is that financiers and companies are thinking ahead about shaping the future of blue carbon markets.

These financial innovations are all impressive but we need much more to address the challenges we face.

It is clear that we are facing an ocean of problems, and we need to involve more people and stakeholders in the process. Scientific knowledge and solutions are increasing, but it is imperative to be able to translate this knowledge and these solutions into concrete action.

Simon Baldwin is global head of Circularity for SecondMuse and director of The Incubation Network.

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