Cleaning the oceans: innovations to tackle marine plastic waste

Sensemaking / Cleaning the oceans: innovations to tackle marine plastic waste

Joshua Basofin asks which strategies and solutions will help solve the massive problem of plastic seas.

By Joshua Basofin / 20 Oct 2016

Marine plastic waste poses an unprecedented global threat to our oceans. In the last 25 years, manufacturing of plastics has increased exponentially year-on-year from 50 million tons in 1990 to over 300 million tons in 2014. All of that plastic has to go somewhere. Due to poor management, it often ends up in the ocean. According to scientists researching ocean waste, that’s 8 million metric tons of mismanaged coastal plastic waste ending up in the ocean every year. What impact is it all having? And what are the best strategies and innovations to help us get it out and keep it out?

Scientists still don’t have a holistic picture of what happens to plastic in the marine environment. Most plastics – even the biodegradable variety – do not deteriorate in the ocean, but rather get broken into smaller bits by sun and tidal action. The best documented type is surface plastic, which makes up, for example, the ‘garbage patches’ littering the Pacific Ocean. Although it’s the most visible variety, surface plastic is in fact a small fraction of the total plastic in our oceans, possibly accounting for just 1%.

The rest, including micro-plastics, might sink, become trapped in arctic ice, wash onto beaches, or be ingested by animals. Plastics have been recovered from every species of fish scientists examine, and are a significant factor for increased mortality among seabirds, sea turtles, fish and ocean mammals. This has serious implications for marine ecology, and also for human health, due to the prevalence of fish protein in diets globally. Besides the impacts of ingestion, marine plastics also cause entanglements, habitat damage, and introduction of exotic species.

This threat is formidable. But businesses, NGOs, innovators, and entrepreneurs the world over have accepted the challenge to get plastics out of our ocean and keep them out. As the manufacturing base for plastics shows no sign of waning anytime soon, the focus has largely been on prevention and recapture.

The Ocean Conservancy has developed a strategy to prevent plastic leaching by improving coastal waste management in China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. These five countries are collectively responsible for a large percentage of plastic mismanagement and release into oceans. Other preventative measures include bans or regulations on microbeads, plastic bags, and other disposable plastics.

A number of new innovations for recapture have emerged recently. The Ocean Cleanup, invented by Dutch student Boyan Slat, uses currents to funnel plastics into a V-shaped array, which are then fed into a collection tower. The Ocean Cleanup is currently in a prototype phase, with a pilot planned for 2017. The Water Wheel, invented by Clearwater Mills, is a solar-powered device that removes plastics at the source using a ‘debris raking system’. The water wheel is being piloted in Blatimore Harbor.

Brands have also begun integrating recycled ocean plastic into products. The non-toxic detergent company Method formed a partnership with the Kokua Hawai'i Foundation to source ocean plastics cleaned up on Hawaiian beaches, which are then integrated into Method’s bottles by recycling partner Envision Plastics. RAW Jeans and Adidas have used recovered ocean plastics in apparel and footwear. These are just a few of the pioneering brands bringing a circular mentality to the problem and drawing attention to the issue globally.


Efforts to reduce plastics in the ocean also align with several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Life Below Water (Goal 14) has a pollution reduction target that specifically references marine debris. Sustainable Consumption and Production (Goal 12) has targets for reducing waste and its release into waterways, as well as an emphasis on the circular economy. Healthy oceans affect everything, from food and medicine to transportation to climate regulation. Oceans are integral to a sustainable world. As Sylvia Earle has said, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.”

Forum for the Future sees many opportunities to collaborate in this area in order to scale the solutions beginning to emerge. If your organisation has a connection to oceans, we’d like to hear from you. Through partnerships, innovations, and new models of coastal waste management, we can ebb the tide of plastics washing into our oceans. It will require perseverance and a systemic approach, but a world with healthy oceans is worth it.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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