Plastic pollution in the ocean is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our generation, visible throughout the ocean and along almost every coast in the world. Plastic has been found in hundreds of marine species, from whales to sea birds, and in some of the most remote places on Earth, from the Galapagos Islands to the Mariana trench and to the Arctic and Antarctic. And the problem is only getting worse.
Projected growth in plastic production and a growing global population are set to significantly increase the already-large flow of plastic into our oceans in the coming years. The Pew Charitable Trusts is working on solutions to this mounting problem and will release a new analysis in the coming months with the goal of helping inform government and industry actions to address this immense challenge.
In partnership with SYSTEMIQ, the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Common Seas, Pew will present evidence-based pathways to reduce the flow of plastics in the ocean. Achieving that will not be easy and will require major shifts by many, from producers to waste managers, along with significant new investments and policy changes from government. But, as our analysis will show, by working together societies can significantly reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean.
A closer look at plastics
Plastic products come in a variety of forms that make some easier to eliminate, substitute, or recycle than others. Solving the plastic pollution problem requires knowing what kinds of plastic are being produced and why. Below we look at several different categories of plastic, and how likely they are to be recycled.
Rigid monomaterial plastics
Rigid monomaterial items are made from a single plastic polymer that holds its shape. The most popular products include:
- Soda, water, or milk bottles and cleaning product bottles.
- Food service disposables such as takeaway boxes, cups and lids, cutlery, and stirrers.
- Pots, tubs, and trays such as those used for yogurt, sandwiches, and meat in markets.
- Packaging materials such as plastic pallets, crates, and bulk containers.
- Household goods such as combs, buckets, and flip flops.
The good news is that the volume of rigid monomaterial items, many of which end up in the ocean, can be significantly reduced through elimination, reuse, new delivery models, or substitution with alternative materials, such as paper. Rigid monomaterial plastics also tend to be easier to recycle and, therefore, are the most commonly recycled plastic type today.
Flexible monomaterial plastics
These products are also made from a single polymer, but they don’t hold their shape. Some examples of flexible monomaterial plastic products are:
- Plastic bags.
- Packaging such as the clear bags around food items and six-pack rings.
- Films, such as those used to wrap food, electronics, toys, and shipping pallets.
Flexible monomaterial plastic is often hard to recycle, partly because its low weight makes cost-effective collection and recycling difficult and partly because the plastic is often contaminated. However, reduction—through bans, incentives, packaging redesign, and reuse models—and substitution with alternative materials, such as paper, can help reduce flexible monomaterial plastic waste.
These items, primarily used for packaging, are typically made of a mix of plastic and nonplastic materials such as laminated paper and aluminum or different types of polymers. Examples include:
- Sachets, individual packets typically used for condiments, shampoo, pet food, instant coffee, and other household items, as well as chips, cookies, and candy.
- Toothpaste and cosmetics tubes.
- Laminated drink cartons.
- Pens, cigarette filters, and toys.
- Hygiene products such as diapers.
Some of these products could be eliminated and replaced by new delivery models or alternative packaging materials, while others could be redesigned using monomaterial plastics so that they can be more readily recycled.
The plastic economy is complex, diverse, and wasteful, contributing mightily to ocean pollution. Simplifying and changing this economy—from production and supply chains to point-of-sale options and recycling—could significantly boost efficiency in use of resources and generate far less waste.
Accomplishing that begins with eliminating as many single-use plastic products as possible, including by replacing them with renewable and biodegradable materials where feasible, and by prolonging the useful life of some items through reuse and new delivery models. Next steps should include a concerted effort to redesign products to maximize usable life and recyclability, shift to sustainable alternative materials, and eliminate the use of hard-to-recycle and toxic plastics.
The volume of plastic both in and flowing into the ocean might seem overwhelming, but it’s a problem that can be solved.
Winnie Lau is a senior officer and Sarah Baulch is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ preventing ocean plastics project.