Why the Philippines is the world's 3rd biggest dumper of plastics in the ocean.
A new report on plastic pollution by international group Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment looks into this alarming discrepancy.
The study, released to media on October 1, looked at 5 of the world’s biggest contributors of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
The last century has been a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity. But these advancements have come at a price, including significant strain on the world’s natural systems. In terms of the ocean specifically, the assumption has long been that its vastness (there are 5 hectares of ocean for every living person) means it offers an unlimited capacity for waste and can serve as the planet’s ultimate sink. This assumption is wrong.
Pollution from sources like storm water and waste-treatment systems or nutrient runoff from agriculture has long been known to cause very real economic and environmental damage. But historically, both the causes and the effects of these types of pollution have largely been considered local or regional issues. Because of its longevity, ubiquity, and sheer volume, plastic debris is now emerging as a new, truly global challenge. (It is estimated that some plastic products retain their original recognizable form 400 years after discharge into the ocean.) Recent research, such as a 2015 article in the journal Science has highlighted the urgency of preventing unmanaged plastic waste from reaching the ocean, a problem known as plastic-waste leakage.
Growth in the global use of plastic-intensive consumer goods is projected to increase significantly over the next ten years, especially in markets where waste-management systems are only just emerging. Unless steps are taken to manage this waste properly, by 2025 the ocean could contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of finfish—an unthinkable outcome. We know that at least some of this plastic enters the ocean’s food chain, and evidence suggests that it has the potential to do significant harm.
We also now have research to suggest that the majority of plastic enters the ocean from a small geographic area, and that over half comes from just five rapidly growing economies—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. These countries have recently benefited from significant increases in GDP, reduced poverty, and improved quality of life. However, increasing economic power has also generated exploding demand for consumer products that has not yet been met with a commensurate waste-management infrastructure.
With a focus on where quick action would have the greatest impact, this report suggests that coordinated action in just these five countries could significantly reduce the global leakage of plastic waste into the ocean by 2025. Specifically, interventions in these five countries could reduce global plastic-waste leakage by approximately 45 percent over the next ten years. Of course, extending these interventions to other countries could have even more impact on this global issue.
This collective action is most effective if it follows a new, integrated action plan, for several reasons:
• Solutions must be global.Plastic is the workhorse material of the modern economy. It often moves through global supply chains and supports global companies. And while plastic products can have short useful lives, the longevity of plastic molecules themselves means that plastic waste travels far across borders and into our common high seas. We need a global approach to mitigating pollution from plastic waste—an approach that considers region-specific solutions that will prevent this waste from entering the ocean in the first place.
• Solutions will have diverse benefits. There are many motivations for stopping plastic and other waste from leaking into the ocean. Waste constitutes economic loss of valuable materials; creates health and labor concerns, especially for waste pickers; harms overall ocean productivity, with a substantial impact on fishing revenues; and dilutes the aesthetic and economic value of beaches and other coastal environments. Any one of these reasons in isolation may not provide sufficient motivation to take collective action, but the ocean is inherently connected, integrated, and global. This perspective can serve as the catalyst to bring a new collaborative approach to the problem at the necessary scale.
• Solutions must be effective and fast.The user benefits of plastics are undisputed and will continue to drive massive growth; the ICIS Supply and Demand database projects that plastic production will increase from about 250 million metric tons in 2015 to approximately 380 million metric tons by 2025. The surge is the compound effect of population growth, economic growth, increasing resource intensity, and an unprecedented dominance of plastics as the multipurpose material of our economy. The highest levels of leakage are in regions that also have some of the highest projected growth rates for plastic waste; the quantity of plastic estimated to enter ocean environments in 2025 is double that of 2015. The issue is urgent but not insurmountable; the next ten years are critical.
• Solutions require a full view of the integrated life cycle.There is no perfect plastic material. Its residual value depends on how the plastic is used, which is typically just one of several criteria considered when designing a product. Sometimes less material is better, sometimes different material is better, and sometimes more material is better. This makes it hard for any single player in the value chain to independently drive full-life-cycle improvements. The need for multidimensional decision making means progress requires an unusually high degree of supply-chain cooperation.
• Solutions are path dependent.Many actions we take to address the problem now will dictate the viability of other solutions in the future, because today’s decisions will shape materials markets for decades. Large-scale deployment of waste-to-energy technology (such as gasification, pyrolysis, or incineration with energy recovery), for example, may help solve the pollution problem associated with today’s plastics, but if not done thoughtfully, it may also hinder the development of plastics that offer higher-residual-value uses at the end of their life cycle. For these reasons, it is important to consider long-term implications of the choices we make today.
While well intentioned, existing efforts to address the leakage of plastic waste into the ocean and other waterways are not being undertaken at scale or with the level of strategic interconnectedness required to meet the scope of the challenge. This report is written to inform discussions about how to significantly reduce and ultimately stop plastic-waste leakage, and to present a view of what successful concerted action could look like.
Throughout this work, in contrast to much of the existing work on plastic in the ocean, we focus on land-based solutions to preventing leakage, rather than studying the transport and fate of plastic once it is in the ocean. We believe this is the best solution to the problem of plastic waste leaking into the ocean—stopping leakage in the first place, rather than treating it after pollution has already occurred. Therefore, this work focuses on five questions:
1. What are the origins of ocean plastic debris, and how does it leak into the ocean?
2. Are there significant differences across regions that require different types of solutions?
3. What leakage-reduction solutions are available, and what are the relative economics and benefits of each?
4. What can be done to trigger the implementation of leakage-reduction measures in the short, medium, and long term?
5. What are the cornerstones of a concerted program for global action to address this issue?
Although this report looks at all five questions, the main purpose is to highlight viable improvement opportunities that exist today. Therefore, the analysis of how plastic leaks into the ocean, as well as research on near-term solutions and their economics, are at the heart of this work. We believe a speedy embrace and deployment of these opportunities is as important as a dialogue on the more systemic changes in the way plastic is produced and used.
This work is a signature initiative of the Trash Free Seas Alliance and was made possible by support from the Coca-Cola Company, the Dow Chemical Company, the American Chemistry Council, the Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa, and WWF. It was led by Ocean Conservancy; the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment has been the knowledge partner in the creation of this report. Advisers to this project include the Global Ocean Commission, The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, government and multilateral funding agencies in our focus countries, and a range of technical advisers with waste-management expertise and experience in the plastics and recycling industries. In addition, Ocean Conservancy gratefully acknowledges the generosity of the following funders who are committed to a trash-free ocean and whose support contributed to the development of this report: Adessium Foundation, 11th Hour Racing, Hollomon Price Foundation, Forrest C. & Frances H. Lattner Foundation and Mariposa Foundation.
We hope this report will set in motion increased efforts to address the global challenge of plastic-waste leakage through concerted action that ensures all major actors are deeply involved. We also hope it can provide a joint fact base that will underpin the discussion and help focus action on high-impact investments. This work entailed significant literature review, interviews with more than 100 experts and decision makers, detailed case studies of over 20 initiatives aimed at improving waste-management systems, and in-depth work in the Philippines and China. We are very grateful for the substantial support this work has received, and are confident that the community of supporters will continue to grow as the effort builds momentum in the months and years to come.