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A new analysis on plastic use is confirming the peril descending on the world’s oceans, and the opportunity we have as stewards to change this course.

According to the report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish. Right now, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute.

“If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.

In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).”

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Perhaps the worst phrase ever coined was, “the solution to pollution is dilution.” It is no truer of toxic chemicals than it is of plastic waste. The oceans can no longer be viewed as a limitless dumping ground.

Plastic production increased twenty-fold over the last 50 years and is expected to quadruple by 2050. Currently, plastic production uses 5% of the world’s oil production, and will increase to 20% within 35 years.

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Just as troubling is the fact that only 5% of plastic is properly recycled, despite the magnitude of efforts undertaken by more developed countries. 40% of plastic waste is sent to a landfill and one-third ends up in the environment, including the oceans.

The effects of this ocean epidemic are captured in videos of marine life being impaled, trapped or killed by plastic. One distressing video shows researchers in Costa Rica removing an entire plastic straw from the nostril of a sea turtle. In another video, a whale asks fishermen for help removing a plastic bag from its head, and then appears to flap its fin in appreciation. One million seabirds die each year from ingesting plastic debris, and up to 90% have plastic in their guts.

“Research released a year ago found there were more than 5 [trillion] pieces of plastic floating in the seas, many just 5mm across. Larger items can be a threat to sea life such as turtles and seals, which swallow them.

Scientists have also found that countless tiny fragments drift to the bottom of the oceans, carpeting the sea bed. The environmental and health impact of this is unknown.” – The Guardian

Microplastic (resulting from the breakdown of larger pieces by sunlight and waves) and microbeads (used in body washes and facial cleansers) are the ocean’s smog. They absorb toxins in the water and enter the food chain, from the smallest plankton to the largest whales as well as humans.

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Plastics have undoubtedly become an important part of human life, but the “disposable” attitude cannot be sustained.

Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy, with unbeaten properties,” said Dr Martin R Stuchtey of the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. “However they are also the ultimate single-use material. Growing volumes of end-of-use plastics are generating costs and destroying value to the industry. After-use plastics could, with circular economy thinking, be turned into valuable feedstock.

The key to changing course and avoiding a collapse of ocean life from plastic overdose is to evolve from a “linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model’” into a circular plastics economy which is “restorative and regenerative by design.” It borrows principles from earth’s natural systems in which there is no concept of waste.

Besides reducing “negative externalities” such as immense ocean pollution, the application of a circular economy to plastics will increase profitability in the industry.

The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics provides for the first time a vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste, and outlines concrete steps towards achieving the systemic shift needed. The report, financially supported by the MAVA Foundation, was produced as part of Project MainStream, a global, multi-industry initiative that aims to accelerate business-driven innovations to help scale the circular economy.”

The new report acknowledges that while plastics and plastic packaging are an integral part of the global economy and deliver many benefits, their value chains currently entail significant drawbacks. Assessing global plastic packaging flows comprehensively for the first time, the report finds that most plastic packaging is used only once; 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. Additionally, plastic packaging generates negative externalities, valued conservatively by UNEP at $40 billion…

In this context, an opportunity beckons for the plastics value chain to deliver better system-wide economic and environmental outcomes, while continuing to harness the benefits of plastic packaging. The New Plastics Economy, outlined in this report, envisages a new approach based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics; drastically reducing leakage of plastics into natural systems, in particular oceans; and decoupling plastics from fossil feedstocks.”

The website goes on to describe the principles and characteristics of a circular plastics economy.  Part of the solution will be a “moonshot” approach to creating plastics that can be both recycled and composted.

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Aside from a different economic approach, innovations like those of 19-year-old Boyan Slat provide feasible solutions to cleaning up ocean plastic patches. According to the Ocean Clean Up Group, 

Slat’s concept uses the natural ocean currents and winds to passively transport plastic towards a collection platform. Instead of using nets and vessels to remove the plastic from the water, solid floating barriers are used to make entanglement of sea life impossible. By deploying the proposed system for ten years, almost half of the plastic within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can be removed.

Also, on June 29, 2015, in New York City, Parley for the Oceans Founder Cyrill Gutsch discussed the partnership and showcased their first prototype product.

According to their website,

Adidas created a world first with a shoe upper made entirely of yarns and filaments reclaimed and recycled from ocean waste and illegal deep-sea gillnets.

The concept shoe illustrates the joint commitment of adidas and Parley for the Oceans and offers a first look at the kind of consumer-ready ocean plastic products that will be revealed later this year

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We have reached a point where the ocean ecosystems that help to sustain human life can no longer be taken for granted. It is incumbent upon us to evolve from the disposable attitude that is represented so potently in our use of plastics.

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Justin Gardner is a peaceful free-thinker with a background in the biological sciences. He is interested in bringing rationality back into the national discourse, and independent journalism as a challenge to the status quo.