A new research report examines the shared pathways of ocean plastic alongside a wider variety of less visible ocean contaminants and proposes seven holistic strategies to prevent ocean pollution.
The new Blue Paper ‘Leveraging Multi-Target Strategies to Address Plastic Pollution in the Context of an Already Stressed Ocean’, led by Professor Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia, is part of a series of 16 papers commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. Working with governments, stakeholders and experts from around the world, the Panel is committed to catalyzing pragmatic solutions for ocean health and wealth aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. By developing a roadmap to transition to a sustainable ocean economy, the Panel aims to trigger responsive action worldwide. The blue paper was supported by an online webinar with leading experts.
Zooming out on ocean plastic
Remarkable about the research is the approach of taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture of ocean pollution. Although ocean plastic pollution has captured the attention of the public, plastic is in fact one of the newest ocean pollutants. Less visible contaminants such as pesticides, antibiotics, heavy metals, oil and nutrients such as nitrogen have also been causing considerable damage to marine ecosystems. However, the fact that they are invisible to the naked eye means that they have been somewhat sidelined in the public domain. This is dangerous, because combined, the pollutants can have a cumulative or ‘synergistic’ effect causing even more harm.
Coming from four major sources (e.g. municipal, agriculture and aquaculture, industrial and maritime), these contaminants and their impacts on eco-systems and marine life, human health and economic costs are examined in detail. Although the study recommends plastic pollution should be prioritised due to saliency and harm caused, nutrient pollutants such as nitrogen, which contribute to harmful algal blooms, also require urgent attention.
Based on their shared pathways, the researchers devised seven holistic approaches to prevent ocean pollution, from improving waste-water management to implementing coastal zone improvements. While all of the interventions work towards reducing ocean plastic, the greatest sectoral overlap applies to the strategies of adopting green chemistry practices and new materials, practicing radical resource efficiency and recover and recycle – with the latter two covering the most Sustainable Development Goals out of all of the interventions.
Yet the true strength of the interventions lies in their ability to bring stakeholders from different sectors to the table, making it easier to apply for funding, develop joint policies and create unexpected alliances. According to independent consultant and researcher, Ellie Moss:
“We live in world with limited attention and limited resources and limited dollars, so we have to be really clever about how we tackle ocean pollution and that’s why targeting these multi pathways are so important. It allows us to address multiple pollutants efficiently and effectively, while maximising positive co-benefits, reflecting a range of positive outcomes that go beyond ocean pollution.”
Propelling global action
While activities such as beach clean-ups are still very much needed, preventing plastic and other contaminants from reaching the oceans in the first place is imperative. The report calls for a systemic solution to ocean pollution, recognising that a window of opportunity exists to use the very visible problem of ocean plastic as a catalyst to propel global action. According to Mr. Simon Reddy, Director, International Environment, The Pew Charitable Trusts:
“We need more and more action by governments and businesses if we want to solve this problem, and that’s not just in relation to plastic, but also some of the other pollutants.”
Even as many societies are dealing with the realities of COVID-19, the researchers remain optimistic about the future, as the pandemic has shown just how quickly innovations can take shape. Even for those who may feel disempowered, there remains a key role for ordinary citizens too. Jenna Jambeck suggests:
“If you have some packaging and you can’t recycle it, communicate to the company that your upset that this is a material that you can’t do anything positive with.”
Overall, it is important to remember that while ocean plastic has captured our imaginations, the causes of ocean pollution, whether plastic or other contaminants, are caused by wider systemic issues. Throwing ‘away’ simply does not exist in a closed system. Only through collaborative cross-sector and multidisciplinary efforts can ocean pollution be tackled.
In line with World Oceans Day 2020, we urge everyone to continue doing their bit however big or small.