How do we keep the oceans from becoming the world’s plastic trash can?

The advantages of plastic being a low-cost material that’s both durable and extremely versatile are undeniable, however scientists are increasingly alarmed by its impact on the health of marine ecosystems.

Article by Annie Shapiro.

Plastic’s popularity in the consumer world is no doubt a result of it being a low-cost material that’s both durable and extremely versatile. These advantages are undeniable, however scientists are increasingly alarmed by its impact on the health of marine ecosystems. In all, experts believe that 5-14 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. To put that amount into perspective, that would be nearly twice the weight of all the cars in Los Angeles put together.

In order to address this issue, the same experts are turning their eyes away from the ocean and towards land. A recent report from the Ocean Conservancy offers some comprehensive solutions to reduce net plastics disposal in the five biggest sources of ocean plastic pollution: Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, China and Indonesia.

According to a report published in Science, these five countries account for up to 60 percent of global waste leakage annually. Therefore these Asian countries serve as “beta locations” for the experts that are brainstorming ways to manage waste throughout the world.

“Left unabated, as populations and wealth grow over the next decade throughout Asia and in many African nations, we will see similar challenges in managing waste [throughout the world],” Director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Oceans Program, Nick Mallos said, “hence, identifying scalable solutions for Southeast Asia can serve as a transferable model to other countries.”

Worldwide, 8 million metric tons of plastic leak out of the global economy and into the ocean annually. Photo by Rhett Butler.

The report notes that worldwide, more than 80 percent of the plastic found in our oceans comes from land-based sources. Of this amount, 75 percent is from uncollected trash and the remaining 25 percent is comprised of low residual plastics such as plastic bags, plastic lids or stretch wrap that fall through the cracks of the collected waste stream.

Uncollected trash in the rural areas of China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand is responsible for up to 2.1 million metric tons of plastics disposal in the ocean, while urban centers in these countries contribute up to 2.4 million metric tons.

Experts say that reducing the amount of plastic in the ocean is achievable within the next 15 years, but simply reducing global plastics usage or encouraging recycling is not a viable long-term solution. Most of the waste is too low in value to extract any materials and requires advanced sorting equipment for about 30 percent of all recyclables.

However, the Ocean Conservancy report did mention that a maximum impact could be achieved by using a mix of technological improvements and industry or government-led initiatives. The authors suggested these six solutions: the expansion of collection services, the closing of leakage points within the collection system, increasing the value of plastic waste, converting waste to fuel or electricity, manually sorting waste and converting low residual value plastics into fuel.

Closing the leakage points within the collection system targets both illegal land-based dumpsites and informal dumpsites in the world’s waterways. Informal dump-sites generate 1.1 to 1.3 million metric tons of plastic waste each year.

A man fishes near an illegal trash dump in Banjarmasin, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Modern technology could also revolutionize the way societies process their waste. Converting plastic waste to oil, gas or energy also has a high potential of combatting plastic debris in the ocean. But such a strategy comes with many difficulties, including high cost, a highly technical conversion method that requires expertise, as well as several unpredictable social and environmental risks. However, technologies such as pyrolysis, which converts plastic waste to oil, and refuse-derived fuel (RDF),– fuel that is derived from plastic waste — could be implemented with government and industry support.

Experts believe it would take up to five years to lower the cost of technologies like pyrolysis by the 30 percent — a percentage goal that is necessary for it to be an economically viable option for the report’s five focus countries. But technologies such as pyrolysis have some of the greatest potential to reduce net plastics disposal in the ocean.

If implemented, these solutions could significantly plug leaks in the current waste systems, expand waste collection and develop an aftermarket for used plastics.

However, even a 98 percent collection rate would not completely eliminate plastic-waste leakage. Achieving a zero plastics disposal rate is only possible if the “decline is accompanied by innovation in the material design and usage of plastic or in the treatment technologies that valorize its post-consumer form,” the report states.

Most importantly, waste management strategies must be tailored to individual countries based on their unique cultural, political and economic structures. For example, geography can play a huge role in explaining collection rates despite cultural attitudes towards waste disposal. “The rural population of China is in the hundreds of millions and many of these citizens live in remote villages far from urban centers… any proposed solution must take into account these unique characteristics accordingly,” says Mallos.

Indeed, experts argue that a universal plastics policy is neither desirable nor possible due to the fact that collection rates and waste density differ greatly in each country. In addition, leakage points and treatment options also differ according to each country’s respective government.

“Local perceptions of trash, historical and current behavioral practices and socioeconomic drivers are all embedded in the foundation of any proposed solution” Mallos says, “this is particularly true in the Philippines, where strong political will, national legislation and leadership from civil society has resulted in some of the highest collection rates in the region.”

If implemented before 2020, the solutions proposed by the Ocean Conservancy report would require a dramatic improvement of collection infrastructure through funding by industry and government. These improvements could come through “ocean-smart” systems that would close dump-sites located near waterways or establish monitoring mechanisms to keep waste from leaking out of landfills.

Reducing plastic waste leakage requires continued innovation in recovery, treatment and plastic product design. Ocean Conservancy, McKinsey analysis. May 2015.

Current industry-led initiatives like the Closed Loop Fund and the Recycling Partnership, which both invest financial resources in reforming recycling infrastructure, can create an estimated $40 billion of value through residual effects such as healthcare and environmental improvements. The Closed Loop Fund, for example, gives zero percent interest loans to municipalities and private companies to assist in their development of local recycling infrastructures.

The Ocean Conservancy report points out that effective waste management “is a potential engine of job growth and could result in the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs while creating secondary industries for waste treatment, and playing a role in the development of a robust renewable energy sector.”

According to Mallos, the stakes for an effective waste management system are quite high.

“We know that poor waste management currently imposes major detriment to communities. Impacts on public health are significant- at least 20 known epidemic diseases can be linked to waste, with poor waste practices suspected in over 4 million lives lost per year, as well as reduced life expectancies for the 6-8 million waste pickers who operate across these five countries.”

The future of recycling management also necessitates a cohesive international response. According to the report, addressing and solving the problem of waste leakage in our oceans, requires a significant commitment from international leaders and governments. It must also be based on concrete evidence of successful integrated waste management policies in other cities. Finally, experts believe that waste management must become a high priority and a major international obligation.

On the ground, Mallos maintains that everyone has an important role to play in reducing ocean plastic pollution.

“We must manage plastic waste while minimizing the amount of waste entering the system. Although one may think individual action is insignificant on the global scale, when taken in conjunction with millions of others, the resulting impact on ocean health is massive,” he said.


“Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies For a Plastic Free Ocean” Ocean Conservancy, McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. 30 Sep 2016.

J.R. Jambeck, R. Geyser, C. Wilcox, T.R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan and K.L. Law, “Plastic waste inputs from land into ocean,” Science. (2015), Volume 347, Number 6223.

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Comments (2)
No. 1-2

Seattle stores now charge patrons for bags. I personally have made more of a conscious effort to bring a reusable bag every time I go to the store. More cities should adopt this policy


STOP USING PLASTIC!! I know its easier said than done, but we need push to ban plastic bags, have greater access to plastic recycling facilities, take containers and bags to restaurants and grocery stores, reject straws, there's a lot we can do. Nobody's perfect, but every little bit helps!!