For Clean Oceans, Action Must be Local and Global

Innovative financing is needed to restore the cleanliness and viability of the world’s oceans. Photo: Marek Okon
Innovative financing is needed to restore the cleanliness and viability of the world’s oceans. Photo: Marek Okon

By Vivian Castro-Wooldridge

For maximum impact in the effort to clean the world’s oceans, we need to reduce the use of plastic, improve waste management and build capacity for large-scale clean up.

Whenever we eat seafood as a family, it makes me wonder how much plastic my young children might be ingesting—and how much of it the world’s children will eat over their lifetimes now that plastics have firmly entered the food chain.

At the current rate, there will be more plastic than fish by weight in our oceans by 2050. Already about a quarter of the fish caught contain microplastics in their guts. The scuba diving industry—a source of jobs in many tourism-dependent island nations—will need to adapt as encounters with underwater debris become more common than encounters with marine life.

Bad trash management is a problem that affects all of us in some way or another.

Waste mismanagement and the continuing popularity of single-use plastics in many countries means that about one garbage truck is emptied into the ocean every single minute. There are some commendable efforts underway to find solutions for recovering plastics in the ocean at scale, such as Ocean Cleanup and Ocean Works.

But these are in trial stages and will ultimately rely on the already overstretched capacities of countries to treat the waste once brought onshore; or they will need to create demand for innovative products made from recovered ocean plastics. With the breakdown of plastics into tiny particles, the pollution can be thought of as a fog or a soup, not just flotillas of flotsam ready to be scooped up. For this reason, we need to urgently stop the flow of new trash while cleaning up the damage that has been done.

For maximum impact we need to simultaneously focus on reducing the use of plastic, improving waste management and building capacity for large-scale clean up. As our team in ADB’s Pacific Department seeks to scale up support on waste management for our clients from small island nations, we see our vision of “Clean Islands, Clean Ocean” being achieved through these three actions taken at the ocean, regional and local level.

At the current rate, there will be more plastic than fish by weight in our oceans by 2050.

Ocean scale solutions are important because the recovery of large-scale plastics has massive ecosystem, public health, and economic benefits. Small island developing states in the Pacific are not the main polluters—yet they are on the receiving end with waste washing up on their shores, which deters tourists and causes ecological damage to marine life.

Addressing the problem at ocean scale also expands the range of potential public and private partnerships (like commercial fisheries or cruise lines) and broadens the pool of financial resources with emerging “blue financing” options – defined as green investing that supports water-related projects – that could be used for solid waste management.

To date, no country has accepted responsibility and agreed to pay for cleaning up the ocean. Nonetheless, with more global attention and pressure, there could be space for a blue finance mechanism based on the principle of ‘polluters pay,’ since developed countries generate ten times more plastic than developing countries.

Exploring the viability of options for regional recycling systems can help tackle both the issues of providing treatment facilities for recovered plastics from the ocean, while proving the needed scale for recycling scrap metal and plastics of the small Pacific countries.

Continuing and growing our project work at the local level is essential for improving health and quality of life, protecting the environment and for optimal use of precious land. Without getting it right at the local scale—and continuously building local capacity of local systems for the 4 Rs (refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle)—the prospects for successful systems at ocean and regional scales will remain a distant dream. After all, without basic sorting of waste locally, it will be difficult to make a regional recycling network viable.

These steps are just the beginning but they hopefully will help us avoid a world where plastics are a basic food group. That is not the world I want for my children.