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What Will It Take To Keep Plastic Out Of The Oceans?

A three-pronged overhaul of our global packaging and recycling systems could potentially raise our plastic recycling rate from 14% to 70%.

Something like 9 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans every year, and, at current rates, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. As developing countries expand, they tend to consume more packaged goods while failing to implement adequate collection systems. By 2050, there could be more plastic in the water than fish, according to one estimate.

Forty years after the first recycling symbol appeared, only about 14% of plastic is currently recycled. But by redesigning packaging along circular economy principles, reusing more plastic bags, and by investing in recycling infrastructure, it should be possible to get that number nearer 70%, a new report estimates.

“Businesses and governments are now, for the first time, recognising the need to fundamentally rethink the global plastics system,” says the report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K. nonprofit focused on circular economy issues. Forty groups, including consumer goods giants like Unilever and Danone, have signed onto the foundation’s $10 million New Plastics Economy initiative, which looks to identify ways to reduce plastic pollution and place more material into closed loops.

The report divides packaging into three categories. The first, representing about 30% of the total packaging by weight, includes pesky items like sachets, tear-offs, lids, and candy wrappers, that we often discard without thinking. Packaging made from several materials stuck together (and therefore more difficult to recycle) also falls into this category, as does “uncommon” packaging like Styrofoam, which people are often at a loss for how to deal with. To become more sustainable, the report suggests that packaging in this category will need to be fundamentally redesigned, and eventually remade with compostable materials, when possible.

A second category, representing 20% of all packaging, can be reused rather than recycled. For example, brands can promote bottle reuse and save money by only shipping active ingredients. Unilever does this in Vietnam, where it launched a Sunlight dishwasher liquid vending machine. In other places, legislation and ballot measures have proven effective at driving change. Several cities and states, including California and Michigan, now ban single-use plastic bags, requiring retailers to offer reusable alternatives. The report estimates that reusing plastics is a $9 billion economic opportunity.

Meanwhile, a third category–50% of plastic packaging–could be attacked through more standardized design and materials standards, and by leveraging economic incentives. The first step, the report says, is creating a “Global Plastics Protocol” to help to harmonize recycling standards across countries. “The entire system of collection and sorting is highly fragmented, which prevents economies of scale and the delivery of consistent, high-quality material streams to recyclers,” the report says. Once standards are unified, they could be reinforced through policies and voluntary commitments, and by developing more robust collection and sorting infrastructure in developing parts of the world.

Given the global scope of the problem, and the complexity of dealing with multiple material types, reducing plastic pollution is not going to be easy. But at least we’re getting to a point where companies and nonprofits are addressing the issue head-on and really getting into the weeds. Perhaps fish will remain the most weighty ocean creatures after all.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Co.Exist. He edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels.

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