plastic trash in the water

Top 5 Ways To End Plastics in the Oceans

Top 5 Ways To End Plastics in the Oceans

Let’s be straight up here. It’s not realistic to imagine that we can end plastics in the oceans completely. It’s too cheap and practical to ever get rid of plastic unless someone invents something even better.

Do you really think your next economy car is going to have a wooden dash?

What we can do, however, is minimize the impact of plastics. We can do that by rethinking how we make, use, and reuse plastic. Here are some of the best ways to keep plastic out of the waste stream and the water, and attack the mess that we have already made.

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1. Society Must Become Less Reliant On Plastic
(and save money along the way) 

Care about creating a greener world? Now invest in it.The only permanent solution to the problem of plastic in our oceans is preventing it from ending up there. The easiest way to do that is not to use so much plastic.

Of course, that’s only “easy” on paper. Plastics are so much a part of our lives it would be challenging to eliminate them entirely. But, they can certainly be reduced.

Single-use plastic products are one of the most significant problems but should be one of the easiest to eliminate. Take drinking straws, for example. They aren’t necessary for the vast majority of people, and yet you can hardly order a cold drink at a restaurant without getting one.

It’s interesting to note that, traditionally, the only place you weren’t offered a straw was at a zoo. Most zoos ban straws because they know they end up as litter, and are a choking hazard for the animals. This should have tipped us off a long time ago.

Today, however, many municipalities are implementing, or at least considering, bans on the use of straws. Even without a ban in place, here’s a simple thing each of us can do: when you order a drink, say, “no straw, please.”

The same goes for plastic water and soda bottles. You don’t have to go far before you find a flattened water bottle lying in a park or on a beach. In spite of being partially recyclable, many of them end up in the garbage or escaping into the wild.

As consumers we have options. That plastic bottle of soda you’re reaching for in the convenience store fridge – is there a can or a glass bottle you could choose instead? And remember: if you replace your single use plastic with reusable containers, you’ll save money along the way. 

If you use plastics, take responsibility for their disposal.

Need water on the go? Take your home tap water with you in a reusable stainless steel container. (Don’t even get me started on the foolishness of paying a for-profit company for bottled water taken from the same aquifers as your tap water!)

We can also decide to avoid plastics when there’s an alternative. As an example, you can use your own shopping bags. Past that, try choosing consumer goods that don’t come in plastic. Instead, make a commitment to choose products that come in cans, glass bottles, and cardboard boxes, all easily recyclable materials.

Even shopping for clothes needs to be reconsidered. Synthetic fibers add to the problem, too. Choose natural materials whenever possible, like cotton, linen, and hemp. If you use plastics, take responsibility for their disposal.

Simply by putting your own garbage in a proper bin – hopefully one marked “Recycling” – you’re doing what you can to ensure that particular piece of plastic ends up where it should. Every piece helps.

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2. Make Plastic Producers Take Responsibility

While it’s easy to say, “I’m going to use less plastic,” the end-user is only part of the problem. At the top of the plastic pyramid are the manufacturers who have decided plastic is the solution to almost all packaging and manufacturing problems.

To be fair, it certainly seemed like a great idea at the time when plastics first came on the market. Cheap, versatile – it was a wonder product.

Fast-forward to today, and the use of plastics has become so ingrained in the manufacturing and consumer packaged goods industries, it would be difficult to change course now without a sudden and unexpected burst of corporate altruism.

Still, this really is the place to start. There needs to be a greater allocation of resources to developing plastic alternatives. Producers should also be held at least partially responsible for what happens to their products at the end of their life cycles. This could include producer sponsored programs that manage the collection, reuse, or where necessary, safe disposal of the plastics that they source.

There needs to be a greater allocation of resources to developing plastic alternatives.

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Some companies do seem to be at least paying lip service to the issue. But are they really taking action or just greenwashing?  Increased consumer demand, however, can help convince even a major corporation to alter its course.

Remember the Styrofoam Big Mac containers at McDonald’s? Consumer pressure led to the major decision to do away with them in 1990. Prior to that, McDonald’s used 2% of all the polystyrene made in the US. 28 years later, McDonald’s have now committed to eliminating all foam packaging globally by next year, and using only recycled materials in every location by 2020. It took awhile, but sustained public pressure eventually makes a difference.

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3. Levy Taxes and Fees On Plastics That Pollute

Very little plastic is made from renewable resources. That’s because it’s still cheaper to make it from oil. By taxing “fossil plastic” production to the point where renewable or recycled plastic becomes more economically appealing, governments can force plastic makers to rethink their process.

Can we tax plastics that pollute and allocate those funds towards researching plastic alternatives?

There are new plastic alternatives being developed, including bioplastics and biodegradable plastics. The former is made from natural materials such as cornstarch. These are commonly used for food recycling and compost bags. Some are even edible, should they happen to escape the waste stream.

The latter are more like traditional plastics but are made to break down more quickly. While this is good news for animals that might otherwise eat the bag, they can still leech hazardous chemicals. Clearly, bioplastics are still being developed and have their challenges, but they are at least a step in addressing alternative packaging sources.

4. Allocate More Money for Cleanup

Right now, most of the money for ocean cleanup programs and studies come from donations. For example, The Ocean Clean Up began with Kickstarter funding. Today, they still mostly rely on donations, volunteers, and profits from the sale of branded merchandise.

What if governments played a more significant role?

What if some of the plastic taxes proposed above went towards removing plastic from the water, and stemming the flow of ocean-bound garbage?

We tend to deride the “throw some money at it and it will go away” approach to society’s problems. But, in this case, that could really help.

Mind you, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated in 2012 it would cost as much as $489 million each year just to run the boats needed to clean 1% of the North Pacific Ocean with a traditional approach (as in trawling for trash). You could view that as either pessimistic or realistic, depending on your point of view.

Yes, that’s a lot of money. Unless you compare it to the $610 billion dollars the United States spent on its military in 2017. Suddenly it’s a drop in the bucket. You could clean up the oceans for more than 1,200 years on that based on the NOAA’s assessment.

Of course, the garbage isn’t solely the responsibility of the US. I’m just using these numbers for illustrative purposes. The money is out there. Just imagine what could be done if it found its way to the right people?

5. Take On the Problem at the Largest Sources

There are certain countries whose contributions to the plastic garbage problem far exceed those of other nations. Unfortunately, all of the countries in the top ten are developing nations. Other than China, none of them have the economic resources available to tackle the problem single-handedly.

global plastic polluters by country graph

Data courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

Rather than solely concentrating cleanup efforts in the middle of the ocean, we must also focus on contributing waterways.

For example, 93% of all river-borne plastic that ends up in the ocean comes from 10 rivers – eight in Asia and two in Africa. Simply halting the flow of plastic already in those rivers before it hits the ocean could cut the plastic problem by more than 2.8 million tons.

Raising public awareness is helping with the plastic waste problem in developed nations, but it is realistically much harder to engage those who have extremely limited choices in developing countries.

It would take an enormous international effort to educate people on the ground, fund cleanups, and establish effective waste management programs in both developed and developing countries.

Economic pressure applied by foreign governments could also play a role, but sanctions sometimes backfire and end up hurting the people they’re supposed to help.

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We Are All Responsible. We Can All Make A Difference.

Removing 100% of the plastic from the all of world’s oceans and waterways is probably impossible. What is possible is to stop more plastic from making its way there, and get serious about initiatives to clean up the mess we have already made.

This challenge is going to take a united and concerted effort, and not from just from a few forward-thinking organizations.

All individuals, companies, and governments need to play a role. After all, the oceans belong to all of us, and all life on Earth depends on them. When the oceans are sick, the planet is too.

Once you’re truly aware of a problem, you can’t ignore it any longer. Researching and writing this article was a genuine eye-opener for me. Once your eyes are open, all you have to do is look around you and see the differences you can make in your own life.

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This article is an excerpt from Plastic In Our Oceans

Guest author Wendy Kathryn is a fish lover who writes at It’sAFishthing.com.

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