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Plastic pollution: can we clean up the ocean?

Numerous associations and companies are promising to ” clean up the ocean ” by cleaning its surface flooded with waste. We want to believe in a miracle solution, but we can legitimately wonder whether these communication campaigns reflect truly effective action. Aren’t they just scraping the surface of a far deeper and more complex problem?

The fraud of greenwashing: Why clean-up initiatives are not what they appear to be  

Funding research into bioplastics, supporting recycling and pollution reduction initiatives, shifting responsibility to consumers or the government… Some companies are not short of initiatives to improve their image and clear their conscience regarding their environmental impact.  

Ocean clean-ups are another tactic used by companies to divert the attention of consumers and public authorities from their own polluting activities.   

By funding initiatives of this kind, they position themselves as committed players in solving the problem of plastic pollution

One example is the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), whose main aim is to “end plastic pollution” by developing programmes and infrastructure to “clean up the ocean“.  

The organisation is mainly funded by chemical and fossil fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp (US oil and gas company), Dow Chemical Co (global chemical manufacturing and distribution giant) and Chevron Phillips Chemical Co (US petrochemical company). It is therefore logical that it should focus primarily on recycling initiatives rather than on the production of plastic at source.  

By investing in initiatives to clean up the ocean, these companies are seeking to deflect responsibility for the ecological disaster caused by plastic, even though they are responsible for the massive and growing production of plastic.    

The major oil and chemical companies are using these initiatives to divert attention by encouraging stakeholders to focus on downstream recycling and waste management, while avoiding the issue of reducing plastic production at source. In other words, they shift the responsibility for solving the problem of plastic pollution onto consumers and clean-up initiatives, while preserving their productive (and lucrative!) polluting activities.  

Read: The five strategies of industries to keep on producing and using even more plastic

Read: Plastic pollution: beware of plastic fake outs

Only the biggest waste is being cleaned up: what about microplastics?    

An NGO that develops technologies to eradicate plastic pollution from the oceans, The Ocean Cleanup has become world-famous thanks to its young founder and his goal of cleaning up the seventh continent, a vortex of plastic waste covering an area of 1.6 million km2 in the Pacific Ocean.  

While the idea may seem praiseworthy on the surface, the system set up by the NGO only collects large pieces of plastic waste that are floating or close to the surface, such as plastic bottles or lost fishing nets. Unfortunately, this is only a tiny part of the problem. The majority of waste ends up sinking or fragmenting into microplastics and nanoplastics.  

In autumn 2018, the crew of the Arctic Sunrise (Greenpeace’s oceanographic vessel) went to the site of the waste vortex to observe this viscous soup up close. It is actually made up of billions of tiny fragments of plastic (microplastics). According to Greenpeace, the plastic vortex is made up of 1,800 billion pieces of floating plastic, with a mass of almost 80,000 tonnes buried in the ocean

This mass is the result of the fragmentation of plastic waste under the effect of sun and salt. 

Microplastics are ingested by marine species, with irreversible consequences for ecosystems and contamination of the food chain, as well as impacts on our health through the ingestion of contaminated seafood. On average, we swallow up to 5 grams of plastic a week – it’s the equivalent of a credit card.  

Tackling only the surface of the problem will not bring about a lasting reduction in plastic pollution.

The only sustainable solution: breaking the cycle of plastic dependency    

At present, it is illusory to try to clean up the ocean.  

However, it is entirely possible to combat the over-consumption of plastic.  

In 2019, on a global scale, only 9% of the plastic produced was recycled, 12% was incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfill sites or was dispersed in nature, much of it easily finding its way into the ocean.  

An estimated 10 million tonnes of plastic reach marine ecosystems every year. That’s the equivalent of a dustbin truck being unloaded into the sea every minute.  

We are calling on companies that pollute and fail to communicate honestly to take a more responsible approach and tackle the issue of plastic pollution head on. All too often, companies focus solely on recycling as a means of combating plastic pollution. But recycling does not eliminate all the risks associated with the use of plastic.  

For these reasons, we are asking companies to make concrete commitments to reduce their plastic consumption at source

Read: Lawyers put nine companies on formal notice to reduce their plastic use

Even the founder of The Ocean Cleanup project himself now recognises the urgency of the situation. In an article published in the New York Times on 25 May 2023, he stated: “If we don’t prevent more plastic from entering the oceans, we will never be able to finish the job”. 

The task may seem impossible, but there is still hope: the second session of the International Negotiating Committee (INC-2) for the international treaty on plastic pollution has paved the way for the drafting of a first version of a treaty. This will be discussed in Nairobi in November 2023. This is a step forward in the face of powerful lobbying by the plastics industry! 

Read: the press release on Surfrider’s reaction to the INC-2r results  

Unfortunately, cleaning up the ocean is not the solution to plastic pollution. The problem must be solved at source. A more global, preventive and transparent approach is needed to tackle the root causes of this environmental crisis. By adopting preventive measures, raising public awareness and implementing strict regulations, the fight against ocean pollution can be taken a step further and the health of our marine ecosystems preserved for future generations.