22. Breaking the Plastic Wave

Pew Foundation

This is the Pristine Ocean Podcast. The podcast that showcases people, projects and ideas that address the problem of marine plastic litter. 

Plastic has a Jekill and Hyde character. Before the moment of consumption is a model citizen providing hygiene, longer food life and lower transport costs. 

A moment after consumption, it becomes a worthless. Owned and loved by no one. 

It might land in the environment where it stays as pollution, poisoning waters, affecting tourism and stealing people’s quality of life.

 In just one generation we have created this monster. Can we, in our own generation, kill the beast?

I think that most people are moved by the sight of a pristine beach covered in plastic. Nobody finds the idea of microplastic in the food chain a good thing. 

Everybody agrees that something should be done but can’t agree on what exactly the best thing to do is.

And the problem is not going to say the same. Projections show a 3-fold growth of ocean plastics in the next 20 years. 

There are a lot things that can be done. We hear about banning plastic bags and zero waste lifestyles.

But what strategies or interventions should be followed by not just to incrementally improve the situation actually to solve the problem? 

Until recently, we didn’t know. 

In July 2020 study titled Breaking the Plastic Wave was released describing a pathway out of the current marine plastic pollution crisis. 

This study is groundbreaking be cause it is independent, comprehensive and data based.

 Independent because it is financed by the nonprofit Pew Foundation. 

It is comprehensive in that over 80 academics and experts were involved in compiling the study. 

And it was data driven by condensing all the research available about ocean plastic pollution. 

It provides answers to the questions whether we should be focusing on eliminating plastic or focusing on collecting plastic or focusing on some other strategy.

The study provides answers about the social, economic and of course, environmental aspects of plastic pollution. 

So if you’re concerned about how the crisis is developing, it is a pretty exciting read. 

It is also quite long, the full report is over 150 pages. Fortunately a summary is available for those of us who well find that a bit long. But just the summary has 29 pages.

So I thought it would be interesting for me to read the report and provide the highlights.

Listen further and I guarantee you will change your view about what is possible. At the end of the episode, I provide an action plan for aligning your plastic habits with the recommendations of the study. 

Here is a spoiler: the report concludes that the prospects of solving the crisis is, doable, wow. 

Many people feel strongly about solving the crisis and have different ideas about how to go about it. 

Should we all go plastic free?

Should the government ban particular items like take away containers? 

They all sound like good ideas, but how good are they really? 

It’s really difficult to assess how effective an intervention is in the larger picture.

You also have to address the social, economic, and environmental aspects as well.  

For example, incinerating waste plastic might appear economically attractive in a rural area without recycling infrastructure. But what about our climate change goals? 

Another example: substituting plastic with paper opens the question about whether or not you’re pushing the problem somewhere else. 

Martin Strutchey from the company systemiq, who was one of the authors of the study, described the situation like this. 

They’re very different propositions out there. One is that we have to break away from plastic altogether. There’s another one that tells us that within the greater scheme of things it’s OK to deposit, or to incinerate plastic. 

There is a proposition that says that this is a problem that we can really clean up post factum. 

There’s one proposition that it will be absolutely possible to build a recycling economy on time that matches the global plastic production economy.

 And there is a proposition that says we just have to go for a new material bio material and that problem will essentially disappear, disintegrate in biodegradation just in front of our eyes.

So here we stand without a reference system, without an effective base to answer even some of the most fundamental question, how do those strategies really perform on environmental, economic or in social indicators? 

How applicable are there really to certain materials into certain geographies? 

How do these strategies really interact positively or negatively? What costs are what investments are associated with them, and how quickly can they actually be implemented? 

Pristine Ocean

So what is the way out of this mess? 

It won’t be solve overnight. 

The study examines next 20 years and asks, what should we do in that time frame? 

Seven different scenarios are examined based on three types of intervention. 

Interventions are analysed in basis of affordability, performance, technology and convenience. 

The first scenario,

Business as usual, assumes no interventions resulting in 3 times the amount of plastic in the ocean today. 

Now, you might not want to consider this, but: visualise it you can: that is the equivalent of 50 kilos of trash per metre on all the coastlines of the world. 

You might say what about all the announcements from the governments and NGOs working against the problem? 

Well, that’s the second scenario. It maps the commitments have already been made today. 

All those commitments total a 7% reduction over business as usual. 

This is like putting out a bushfire with a water pistol. 

The next strategy is Reduction.

Reuse existing plastic or substitute some other material for plastic. Best of all is just not to use it. But as any strategy has its limits, we cannot reduce our way out of the crisis.

Zero waste living might work for some, but it’s not realistic expect the entire world will swing that way. 

The authors estimate that we can reduce our plastic usage by 30% without hitting limits. 

The second intervention is the Recycling. 

In this scenario, the authors see 1/3 of plastic production can be recycled. 

The third and final intervention is disposal.

Plastic is collected and disposed in landfills, controlled incineration or by pyrolysis. 

Interestingly, no single intervention, whether it is reduction or recycling or disposal, will avoid disaster. They are important but insufficient on their own.

But combined, they offer a credible pathway to deal with ocean pollution.  So while there is no silver bullets, the report is optimistic. There is a way out.

What can I do today, you might ask. What will  put us on the path out of the marine plastic pollution crisis. 

After reading the report, we know that the focus is on those three interventions: reduction, recycling and disposal. 

As consumers, we can support the reduce and recycle interventions in our own households. 

Furthermore, we can have an indirect influence on the disposal intervention. I’ll talk about that in a moment, but let’s first look at reduction and recycling. 

First of all, I suggest you make a separate plastic container in your kitchen. 

You’ll need a package or some kind of container to collect recyclables.

You will also have to find out how the recycling facility wants you to separated waste. 

Can Tetra paks and plastics be mixed? Or do they have to be separated? 

You also have to do some research to find a path for your separated items to your next recycling facility. 

By-the-way: if you do not have access to a recycling facility, maybe there’s an opportunity waiting for you create a  recycling business.

Maybe you can create pressure have a facility made available from your municipality.


Let’s assume you are separating your kitchen waste and you have a path to the recycling facility. 

What about reduction? How do you reduce your single use plastic? 

Just keep an eye on what you’re producing and ask yourself from time to time what kind of impact on your lifestyle would have if you left that item  out. 

Some of the recurring plastics I’m talking here about a take-out containers. 

Is this a habit you just might want to review? 

There are also no brainers is like buying vegetables in plastic wrapping. 

All these things will become apparent to you once you become aware of the plastic waste you creating. 

Finally we come to the disposal intervention. If you live in a high income urban environment, collecting and disposal of waste may not be practical.

My suggestion here is that you go plastic neutral by supporting an offset programme. 

For the price of a latte per month, this is a great way to support frontline projects that are collecting and disposing plastic in countries with substantial plastic leakage. 

Offsetting is not an excuse. It provides support to collection schemes to incentivize waste collectors collect and dispose of plastic waste responsibly. 

There are a number of well-known programmes such as the Plastic Bank. 

Pristine Ocean has a crowdfunded collection scheme in Sir Lanka, where we clean beaches and support the local waste workers remove plastics from the beaches before they enter the ocean. 

Make it financially attractive. 

We are looking for sponsors to join the project. For a few dollars or euros per month, we will remove 5 kilograms of beach plastic. Check out the project in the show notes. 

The takeaway from this episode is that there is a exists a pathway out of the marine plastic litter crisis. One that, does not just incrementally improve the situation but comprehensively deals with the problem.

It provides the perspective of handing over the environment to the next generation with a good conscience. 

 In just one generation we have created this monster. Can we, in our own generation, kill the beast?

According to Breaking the Plastic Wave – yes we can.

That’s it for this week. Thank you very much for listening. 

Please do subscribe to the Pristine Ocean Podcast. The podcast that showcases people, projects and ideas around the globe, fighting the scourge of marine plastic litter. 



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