A Cross-Sectoral Approach to Tackle Ocean Plastic Pollution

Plastic plays a vital role in our lives; however, plastic waste is a burgeoning environmental, social, and economic problem across the globe. The estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the oceans every year pose one of the greatest modern-day threats to the health of global marine ecosystems. A great deal of relevant research and progress is currently underway, but effectively addressing ocean plastic pollution requires a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach with engagement from a wide range of sectors.

Last March, the British Antarctic Survey convened a 1-day workshop to address these issues and identify potential solutions. More than 160 delegates attended, representing academia, media, nongovernmental conservation and policy organizations, and industry. About a quarter of the delegates attending were representatives from international companies, small businesses, and start-ups. The aims of the workshop were to identify knowledge gaps, explore solutions, and highlight future actions on ocean plastics.

Plastic pollution is a truly global issue—floating garbage patches have been observed in all five subtropical oceanic gyres. The workshop highlighted that plastic is now prevalent even in areas far removed from human habitation. Attendees raised concerns regarding the levels of plastic debris in the polar regions and their potentially profound effects on Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems.

Workshop participants recognized that although the impact of large plastic debris is well documented, large pieces can break down into smaller micro- and nanoplastics. The effects of these breakdown products, along with particles originally produced as microplastics, are poorly understood. Other key knowledge gaps include the effects of bioaccumulation of plastics in food webs and potential effects on human health.

Workshop participants concurred that innovative approaches and systemic changes are required to achieve the goal of zero plastic waste, end the existing “throwaway culture,” and move from a linear production-to-disposal system toward a circular economy.

Delegates presented solutions that embrace science, including replacing plastic with natural materials and biopolymers; green chemistry and fiber engineering; chemical recycling of end of life plastic into virgin materials; and reducing pollution via ocean cleanup schemes, including wastewater screening, collaboration with the fishing community, and robotic and floating waste collection technologies.

Workshop participants identified a number of priorities for action, including the need for coherent, clear, and simple scientific messages for politicians, the public, and other stakeholders; the creation of best practice guidelines for monitoring the marine ecosystem; and the establishment of appropriate certification schemes.

The workshop highlighted the value of cross-sectoral engagement and collaboration in finding solutions to the global issue of ocean plastic pollution. Workshop participants agreed that to tackle the problem effectively, we need to move beyond the traditional “science-policy interface” to a network of scientists, industry representatives (large to small scale), nongovernmental organizations, and policy makers working together toward solutions. They emphasized that to genuinely change the system, these solutions must embrace science, encourage industry innovation, and be amenable to policy facilitation.

Framework for solutions to ocean plastic pollution
Finding, prioritizing, and delivering consistent and effective solutions to the ocean plastic pollution problem requires a cross-sectoral framework. NGO stands for nongovernmental organizations.

A comprehensive report from this workshop is available here.

We thank the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Cambridge Conservation Initiative, and Cambridge Cleantech; the workshop organizing committee; the BAS Plastics Group; BAS students for documenting the proceedings of the meeting and helping with the event; and all workshop participants.

—C. M. Waluda (email: [email protected]; @clairewaluda), R. D. Cavanagh (@RachieCav), and C. Manno (@claramanno), British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, U.K.