Worldwide, there’s many different types of initiatives aimed at addressing the ocean plastic pollution problem (in part because of the importance of the oceans to humans and society)
But, if you look at the stats and causes/sources, there might be a clear solution we need to focus on above others.
In this guide, we outline what might be the most effective way to address the ocean plastic pollution issue.
Summary – Most Effective Way To Stop Ocean Plastic Pollution
In terms of effectiveness, solutions like beach clean ups and reducing plastic straw use might not provide as high of a benefit as other solutions.
More effective waste management systems (landfill, recycling, incineration, etc.) across the world could decrease the risk of mismanaged plastic entering the ocean by up to 80%.
This could be the key solution
Additionally, focussing on reducing marine waste like fishing equipment and gear could also help – as it can make up up to 20 to 50% of ocean waste, depending on the part of the ocean where waste is found (more heavily fished parts of the ocean might contain more fishing gear waste and litter)
Are Beach Pickups & Cleanups Effective?
Technically, beach pickups and clean ups address plastic waste on beaches, not in the ocean – so, you could argue we need to address both.
As an overview …
Beach cleanups certainly do help – no one is disputing that.
If you look at the report figures from any of the beach cleanup organisations worldwide, they are definitely able to clean up and remove a range of plastic waste items from beaches and shorelines.
For example, you can see OceanConservancy.org’s 2018 report at https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/international-coastal-cleanup/annual-data-release/.
There, they list the top 10 items collected, and the numbers behind each.
Beach waste and rubbish may come from littered plastic, and littered plastic has a ‘rate of littering of 2 percent of total plastic waste generation across all countries’ (ourworldindata.org).
China for example produced 59.08 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2010, and littering rates may have been roughly 2% of that.
But, beach pickups and cleanups may not be the most effective
Should We Focus On Reducing Plastic Straws?
It’s estimated that if all straws around the world’s coastlines were lost to the ocean, this would account for approximately 0.03 percent of ocean plastics.
A global ban on their use could therefore achieve a maximum of a 0.03 percent reduction
So, we can see that addressing straws in particular doesn’t have a big impact from a quantity of plastic waste perspective.
Something to note though is that it’s not clear what the impact of plastic straws are on wildlife compared to other plastic items – so, it could be that straws aren’t big in quantity, but can do more damage in some ways.
Impact of the individual plastic items isn’t something we have data on yet.
The Most Effective Way To Address Ocean Plastic Pollution Might Be … Upgrading Waste Management Systems Globally That Inadequately Dispose Of Plastic
Expanding on the above numbers of plastic straws, Ourworldindata.org writes:
With effective waste management systems across the world, mismanaged plastics at risk of entering the ocean could decline by more than 80 percent.
If we focus all of our energy on contributions of negligible size [like plastic straws], we risk diverting our focus away from the large-scale contributions we need
So, effective waste management systems for mismanaged plastics could be the key (penalties for littering, more public general trash and recycling bins, better contained and closed off and secure landfills, better waste collection services, better waste infrastructure, and so on).
Mismanaged plastics are the sum of littered plastics, and inadequately disposed of plastics.
Definitions of each are:
Plastics that are dumped or disposed of without consent in an inappropriate location (Ourworldindata.org)
Inadequately Disposed Waste
Is that which has the intention of being managed through waste collection or storage sites, but is ultimately not formally or sufficiently managed.
This includes disposal in dumps or open, uncontrolled landfills; this means the material is not fully contained and can be lost to the surrounding environment.
This makes it at risk of leakage and transport to the natural environment and oceans via waterways, winds and tides.
Specifically, we might focus on the regions and countries in the world that are responsible for the most littered, inadequately disposed of, and overall mismanaged plastic waste (via Ourworldindata.org):
Littered Plastic Waste
Across all countries, there’s an average littering rate of 2%
Inadequately Disposed Of Waste
Low to middle income countries tend to be responsible for more inadequately disposed of waste, whilst high income countries are less responsible
East Asia and the Pacific region is responsible for the most mismanaged plastic waste
We can dive into these solutions even deeper – we will be writing a guide shortly about the full list of solutions for plastic waste shortly and relating it back to these sources of plastic waste.
Another Good Solution Might Be Greater Focus On The Dumping Of Fishing Equipment & Gear (Marine Based Plastic Waste Sources)
… other sources of plastic pollution — such as discards of fishing nets and lines (which contributed to more than half of plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) receive significantly less attention [than plastic items like straws]
So, in addition to more effective waste management systems, we could look at ways to reduce fishing equipment and gear dumping to reduce plastic waste entering the ocean.
Maritime-executive.com has some interesting potential solutions for this, which you can view at https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/five-ways-to-tackle-ghost-fishing-gear
2. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]