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What are the solutions to plastic pollution?

Updated: May 1, 2020

A handful of plastic scooped from the most polluted beach in the USA. Photo credit: Anna Cummins

The situation seems stark. Research indicates that the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute. More than 5.2 trillion pieces of plastic can be found floating on the surface of the ocean. An estimated 1200 marine species are affected by plastic pollution through ingestion and entanglement. Scientists estimate that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight).

Plastic has been around for more than a century, and the amount used in products and packaging is on a growth trajectory that is causing a global waste crisis. The question that all experts are concerned about is what to do with all of the plastic once it leaves consumer hands. Plastic doesn't biodegrade over time, it just fragments into smaller and smaller pieces.

There are four major categories of solutions to plastic pollution:

1. Consumer Engagement

2. Policy

3. Corporate products, packaging & systems design change

4. Waste Management

These solutions are all intertwined; without one, we can't have the others. Educating consumers about single-use, disposable plastics is one way to launch the plastic pollution solutions pipeline. While it has taken time - decades really - consumers have become concerned about plastic pollution. They are demanding better policy to regulate the amount of single-use plastic that is put out in the market, plastic that so easily leaks from consumer hands into the environment.

Policy-makers are hearing their constituents' concerns regarding plastic pollution and have begun to put regulations in place, with Europe leading the charge. Multi-national corporations are responding to consumer demand and regulation by committing to more sustainable materials in their products and packaging. Circular Economy theories are being integrated into multi-national business practices. McDonald's, which operates in 100 countries (many of which are implementing regulations on plastic packaging and waste) recently announced that by 2025 "guest packaging" will come from renewable, recycled or from certified sources like FSC. They will also attempt to recycle all packaging, which taps into the 4th solution to plastic pollution - waste management.

For the last few decades, it has been the practice to landfill, incinerate, or ship plastic waste overseas. A very low percent of plastic is recycled, a mere 9% here in the USA. The waste is piling up though, filling landfills locally and across oceans. Our waste management practices need to evolve to meet the demands of the other 3 solutions. We need corporations to increase the amount of post-consumer recycled content in their products and packaging, fueling the lackluster recycling market that has been a victim of cheap oil prices. We need to nurture the return of regional recycling, so no one country becomes the dumping ground for the world's plastic waste, which overwhelms scant resources and leaks into the environment. These thoughts are just a start.

What's brilliant about these 4 solutions to plastic pollution is that every single person on the planet can support and participate in at least one of them, if not more. We can each do our part to ensure that future generations are not crowded out by a sea of plastic pollution. How do reduce your plastic footprint? Let us know!

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