If we really want to tackle ocean plastic…
…the solution may be much more prosaic than we think. Forget (for the moment) agonising over whether you should buy a coffee in a disposable cup, think instead about boring old infrastructure.
According to researchers from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, 93% of ocean plastic comes from just 10 rivers, 8 in Asia and 2 in Africa.
Certainly when I was in South Africa this summer, a relatively wealthy country on the continent, I was astounded by the amount of plastic blowing away from a landfill site we drove past. For a couple of miles downwind, the litter was much more pronounced than upwind. Later, at Pretoria Zoo signs apologised for the amount of plastic in the river that cut through the site, explaining that there were storm drains just upstream. We don’t see these issues so much in affluent countries, simply because the infrastructure is better.
I’m a big proponent of 80:20 thinking for Sustainability – identifying the small number of actions which will have biggest impact. Targeting these rivers, and the waste/water treatment systems around them, must be our first priority. And we know what to do and how to do it. What better use for international aid – perhaps funded by plastic bag/disposable cup levies in affluent countries?
We must also work the longer term project of finding better solutions to cutting plastic pollution at source and creating a circular economy. But if we want to make an immediate impact, focus on what would make maximum difference.