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Waves of waste: The harsh truth about ocean plastic

November 13, 2023

From the depths of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to global shorelines, recycling and cleanup crusades are in full swing. But do they stand a chance against the plastic deluge?

A sculpture made of plastic waste. Plastic rubbish flows out of a giant tap suspended in the air.
With the growing flow of plastic waste, are cleanups worth it? Image: Brian Inganga/AP/picture alliance

Just below the surface of the world's largest ocean, toothbrushes, children's toys, fishing nets and food packaging all coalesce into a thick soup of oil and gas-based waste, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

At least 14 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, according to the IUCN, an international nature conservation organization. There, it is being ingested by animals, entering the food chain and damaging ecosystems.

However phenomenal the volume, nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup believes it can deal with the bulk of the mess by dragging massive u-shaped nets through rubbish hotspots at sea and using floating barriers to intercept trash from about 1,000 polluted rivers.

This system is the second prototype and has since been replaced
The Ocean Cleanup have developed several iterations of nets to scoop plastic waste out of the ocean and riversImage: The Ocean Cleanup/abaca/picture alliance

In the decade since it began, The Ocean Cleanup says it has removed about 7.5 million tons of plastic, and with sufficient funding believes it can clear away 90% of plastic floating on the surface.

But the organization, which has received funding from the likes of Coca Cola and polymer producer SABIC owned by oil company Saudi Aramco, has been criticized for helping to greenwash companies linked to plastic pollution.

Is it worth it?

Nonprofits Oceancare in Switzerland and the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency see such ocean cleanup technologies as a distraction from stemming the flow of mismanaged plastic waste in the first place.

"It's like sticking a Band Aid on a broken leg," said Christina Dixon, ocean campaign leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency. "It sounds good on paper, but it's not really addressing the actual big impact of plastic pollution on the environment."

She said a focus on expensive cleanup operations is misdirecting resources to the wrong end of the problem, and that such technologies are emissions intensive. They can also inadvertently harm marine life in the process of catching plastic, though The Ocean Cleanup disputes this.

Coca Cola's plastic problem

Dixon spoke to DW from Kenya's capital Nairobi, where international delegates are meeting this week to try piece together an ambitious global treaty to end plastic pollution, similar to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

As fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco invest heavily in plastic production to hedge against the renewable energy transition, mismanaged plastic waste will double by 2060 globally, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Without significant action, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050.

"If the bath is filling and overflowing, you can try and put a pump in and start pumping it out. But really, we've got to go to the source to turn the tap off," said Marcus Gover, the plastics initiative director at Australian non-profit Minderoo Foundation. 

How to stop the tide of plastic

Gover said negotiators in Nairobi have a choice of options in front of them to address plastic pollution, much like a restaurant menu.

"If we make the right choices, we could come up with a meal that's really good for us. But equally, if we make the wrong choices and go for the fast food options on there, then it's not going to be healthy," Gover said.

Modeling of potential agreements suggests that a robust treaty could reduce mismanaged plastic waste up to 95% by 2040 compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

This approach would require globally binding rules to reduce plastic production, eliminate problematic and avoidable plastics, expand circularity, and improve disposal methods.

A man sorting through mounds of plastic bottles
A Chinese laborer sorting out plastic bottles for recycling in Dong Xiao Kou village, on the outskirts of BeijingImage: FRED DUFOUR/AFP

Felix Cornehl, a former UK government advisor involved in the modeling said it would require a seven-fold increase in global recycling rates and would still leave room for even more robust action.

"If we have limited resources available, stopping that flow from the beginning and going upstream — reducing unnecessary production of plastic and keeping produced plastic in the system as long as possible are cheaper, but I think there is still a place for helping communities deal with the waste that is currently in the system," Cornehl said.

Vested interests at play

But addressing upstream production might prove difficult, given the influence of plastic producers in the talks, according to a group of scientists who are advising delegates in Nairobi.

Bethanie Carney Almroth, a professor of ecotoxicology at Sweden's University of Gothenburg, said pro-plastic lobbyists are working to stall progress on capping production, sowing doubt with techniques similar to Big Tobacco's efforts to block smoking regulation.

Almroth said all scientific evidence shows that capping the production of plastic was essential to ending plastic pollution, but that lobbyists were seizing on end-of-life technologies such as ocean cleanups and chemical recycling to divert action.

"It's a way for companies to sort of buy themselves free," Almroth said. "It's like a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card."

But the people doing the dirty cleanup work don't see it as a binary choice.

"We need to do something about production, we need to change our behavior when it comes to plastic usage, but we also need to take out the stuff that is already out there," said The Ocean Cleanup's director of communications, Joost Dubois.

"The cleanup is just one element of what will lead to the end of plastic pollution. We mop the floor, but somebody will also have to work on closing the tap."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker