Save Our Oceans from Drowning in Plastic

August 13, 2018

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Timothy J. McClimon, Senior Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility

According to a recent United Nations report, 80 percent of all pollution in the oceans comes from people on land, and over eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. This waste annually costs the lives of one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and causes $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems.

Other studies have estimated that at least five trillion pieces of plastic are floating in the world’s oceans, and while a majority of this plastic debris sinks or washes ashore, much of it is floating in five gigantic, slow-moving whirlpools nicknamed Vortexes. The World Economic Forum projects that there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050 if the current trends continue.

A number of companies, nonprofit organizations and government agencies have advocated moving away from this kind of linear economy -- where we make and dispose of plastic -- to a more circular system where we keep plastic in the economy and out of the natural environment.

One such effort is the UK Plastics Pact, which aims to transform the plastic packaging sector in the UK by meeting four targets by 2025:

  • 100 percent of plastic packaging to be reusable or compostable;
  • 70 percent of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted;
  • 30 percent average recycled content across all plastic packaging; and
  • Problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items are eliminated through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models.

Many groups have targeted the single-use plastic straw in an effort to reduce plastic waste. It is estimated that 12 billion straws are used worldwide very year, and they are frequently one of the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups. While some countries and cities have sought to ban them outright, a number of companies like Starbucks and McDonalds have voluntarily agreed to eliminate or dramatically decrease the use of single-use plastic straws in the coming years.

Another culprit is the plastic bag. An estimated one trillion bags are used each year globally, and the average American throws away 10 single-use bags per week. New Yorkers alone use 23 billion bags per year – more than enough, when tied together, to stretch to the moon and back 13 times. Dozens of countries (e.g., Ireland and Kenya) and municipalities (e.g., Austin, Chicago and Seattle) have either banned the use of plastic bags altogether or they have imposed fees to discourage their use.

A number of nonprofit organizations are working to bring visibility and change to the amount of plastic waste in our oceans. One is the Ocean Conservancy. Founded in 1972, the Ocean Conservancy works to protect ocean species such as whales, seals and sea turtles as well as their natural habitats and the communities that surround them, and its International Coastal Cleanup mobilizes over 600,000 volunteers to clean up beaches and coastlines each year.

Another is 4Ocean, which is focused on four pillars of work:

  • Optimizing technology to prevent, intercept and remove trash from the ocean and coastlines;
  • Creating jobs with full-time captains and crews that are cleaning the oceans and coastlines every day;
  • Educating individuals, corporations and governments on the impact that plastic has on the ocean; and
  • Creating new global economies by giving ocean plastic a value that creates a market for the removal of trash.

Parley seeks to create a movement where creators, thinkers and leaders come together to raise awareness for the beauty and fragility of our oceans and collaborate on projects that can end their destruction. Its Parley for the Oceans Program is centered on three strategies: avoid plastic wherever possible, intercept plastic waste and redesign the material itself.

Parley has created a number of partnerships with companies that have either created or pledged to create new products from ocean plastic (e.g., Adidas, Stella McCartney) or have shifted consumption away from virgin plastic. American Express recently announced plans to launch our first American Express Card manufactured from recovered plastic waste found in oceans and on the coasts as well as to phase out single use plastic straws and coffee stirrers from all of our major offices and Centurion airport lounges globally.

What can you and I do to reduce our plastic waste? Here are some suggestions:

  • Carry a reusable water bottle.
  • Take reusable bags to the grocery store or market.
  • Use reusable utensils, plates, cups and mugs.
  • Avoid plastic straws, coffee stirrers and single-use condiment packets.
  • Opt for snacks that can be purchased in bulk and stored in reusable containers rather than buying single-wrapped items or using baggies.
  • Support nonprofit organizations that are working to reduce and recycle plastic waste and companies that are acting responsibly.

Portions of this blog first appeared on Forbes.com

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

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