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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Eliminating ocean plastic pollution must be a commercial and global priority

The world needs businesses, governments and NGOs to make commitments to remove the plastic that is already in the oceans and prevent more from entering

Volunteers collect plastic rubbish and waste on the beach at the University of Plymouth's Marine Station in England. Getty
Volunteers collect plastic rubbish and waste on the beach at the University of Plymouth's Marine Station in England. Getty

I get asked frequently, "why do you care so much about the oceans? What does your job in technology have to do with ocean health?"

Turns out to be a lot.

A healthy world ocean is critical to our survival – this magnificent body of water flows over nearly three-quarters of the planet, holds 97 per cent of our water and produces more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere. It impacts all of us, the health of our families, our communities and our businesses. However, despite commitments from governments, vocal campaigns with celebrity endorsement and a lot of people talking about the issue, our oceans are still in danger.

Each year, more than eight million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean, over time breaking into trillions of microplastic particles, which only leave the ocean when they are ingested by sea life and enter the human food chain (the average seafood eater consumes 11,000 plastic particles per year). Ocean plastics impact the environment, human health and, ultimately, are threat to the future of our planet – making it an issue that everyone should care about.

But where do we start to tackle the plastic problem?

Any attempt to reduce plastic waste, be it on an individual or organisational level, is a step in the right direction. Campaigns like #StopSucking or The Last Straw are fantastic gateways to highlighting plastic pollution; raising awareness and starting to educate a wider audience.

On an individual level, the advice for preventing plastic pollution is straightforward – do your part and be smart in everyday actions and we can all make a difference. The roundtable discussion included representatives from the Centre for International Environmental Law (Ciel), Common Seas, which works to improve social and economic value while creating a resilient ocean, the a global research non-profit organisation World Resources Institute and the US-based Interface, the world's largest manufacturer of modular carpet tiles, which runs a sustainability campaign called Mission Zero. The debate showed that while individual impacts matter, alone they aren’t enough.

Instead, we need governments, businesses and NGOs to be held accountable and make commitments to remove the plastic that is already in the oceans, prevent more from entering and make sustainable decisions that limits plastic production.

When speaking at the recent round table, Kristian Teleki, director of the Sustainable Ocean Initiative at the World Resources Institute pointed out that there are notable new levels of interest in plastic pollution in the public, political and private spheres. As such, there is now a clear end-goal to decouple waste generation from economic growth.

Until that happens, governments around the world have made commitments to address the plastic problem. It is, however, important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution; what works in France might not work in Egypt, for instance, and we need to consider that there are different starting points for each country. Each government needs to invest in individual infrastructures that allow for waste solutions that can scale at a speed which meets the problem at hand.

Volunteers collect plastic rubbish and waste on the beach at the University of Plymouth's Marine Station in England. Getty
Volunteers collect plastic on the beach in Plymouth, England. Getty

This is a daunting task and the improvements to infrastructure that needs to occur isn’t going to happen overnight. It is unsurprising, therefore, that we are increasingly seeing governments pull out of sustainability agreements, face a lack of accountability, or simply just promise to make changes but not actually take any action.

Be it due to an absence of investment in infrastructure or poor visibility into a country’s waste disposal or recycling system, governments across the globe are failing to offer sufficient waste management solutions. As such, it is up to businesses to take the lead in plastic innovation and reducing waste in our oceans.

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There may be no way to reverse the ocean plastics damage to date, however, there is an opportunity to transform the way we think about this issue. In fact, companies have begun to re-imagine plastic waste as a resourceful material rather than waste, taking note of the positive economic and sustainable impact of utilising plastic waste rather than virgin materials in their production lines.

Companies such as Adidas, Trek and Herman Miller among others, have incorporated ocean plastics into their products, whether it is packaging, furniture or footwear. Then there’s McDonald's, which is taking the step to remove single-use plastics as an option. Businesses have to start taking action, and looking into how they can reuse plastic waste and the alternative materials which they can utilise instead. This is why Dell, in addition to using ocean-bound plastic in our product packaging, is going strawless at our facilities globally.

The good news is commercial sustainability is driven by customer enthusiasm, innovation and cost cutting – it isn’t just great for the environment.

Consumers are increasingly looking to help tackle the plastics problem by making "green" purchasing decisions. Lastly, businesses leading the sustainable, ocean-bound plastic movement will be ready to comply with future plastic waste regulations – especially as more governments are looking to do their part in helping our ocean through new plastic related taxes.

No one can fight the oceans' plastics problem alone – a view I made very clear when speaking at the recent round table. While having individual sustainability goals drives innovation, it is so important to collaborate with customers governments and even competitors. After all, in the long-term, alleviating the ocean plastic problem is going to make a difference for all of us and we can’t do it alone.

A 12-metre installation depicting a whale, made up of five tons of plastic waste pulled out of the Pacific Ocean, is displayed in Bruges. John Thys / AFP
A 12-metre installation depicting a whale, made up of five tonnes of plastic waste pulled out of the Pacific Ocean displayed in Bruges. AFP

For this reason, companies that have pioneered new ways of using ocean plastics are already sharing knowledge and blueprints for projects that have worked well for them, so that others can build upon and learn from these ideas.

An example of this is an open-source initiative called NextWave, which convened leading technology and consumer-focused companies to develop the first-ever commercial-scale ocean-bound plastics and nylon supply chain, while also ensuring economic and social benefits for multiple stakeholders. The founding list of companies include Dell, General Motors, Trek Bicycle, Herman Miller, Interface, Van de Sant, Humanscale and Bureo, with others able to easily apply to join the cause. The companies are engaging with scientists and advocates working with marine litter and ocean health to advise on a sustainable model that supports the needs of coastal communities and environments.

Among other collaboration efforts is the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance, which aims to finance solutions to address marine debris and advice resources like Lonely Whale, a group facilitating the creation of innovative ideas to maintain the health of our oceans.

The road to sustainable production and business practices can seem long, but the early believers and adopters will win the hearts and minds in the future.

Eventually, no doubt, governments across the world will invest in the necessary infrastructures and enforce the changes we all need them to make