A Plan for Plastic (part one)

Coherent and provocative ways forward toward a plastic-free future

World Ocean Forum
4 min readSep 8, 2022


Credit: Sören Funk / Ocean Image Bank

How many times have we addressed the critical problem of plastic in the ocean? Despite constant coverage by the press, with images of plastic debris piled on beaches, flowing in rivers, swallowed by birds and fish, floating in massive accumulations in the open sea, ground into micro-beads by waves and friction into an invisible threat, up into the atmosphere to circulate as rain, down into the food chain, into marine species, and ultimately into our bodies — the plastic problem persists as a physical, or financial, or cultural force that seems immune to reason, effective action, and solution. I am asked all the time: what can we do about plastic?

The plastic challenge has been met mostly episodically — an engineering solution, a campaign to clean up beaches, a start-up for recycled plastic containers — many such independent initiatives that fail, sometimes because they are bad ideas, but primarily because they are part of no overall, coherent plan. In the meantime, a recent report by the Pew Foundation suggests that the flow of plastic into the ocean will increase by almost 300%, from 11 million metric tons in 2016 to 29 million metric tons in 2040, not an indicator of a successful strategy in place to solve the problem.

The Pew report was prepared in partnership with SYSTEMIQ, self-described as a “system change company,” a collaborative designer, that helps to create plans to transform how we live and work in five areas of economic endeavor, of how we live and work: energy, nature and food, materials, urban areas and finance. “Our work,” its website declares, “is a unique combination of coalition building, specialist advisory services, leadership transformation, policy development, redesign of markets and value chains, capital mobilization, on-the-ground action, as well as incubation of and investment in early-stage businesses.” Jargon aside, these intentions do define the essential challenge to transformational action for the ocean, and for the land too certainly, the need for an informed and integrated strategy that will direct governments, non-profits, municipalities, investors, and environmentalists to agree on and coalesce behind a set of findings coupled to a set of actions that confront the conventional values, structures, and behaviors that have created, and perpetuate, the problem.

Credit: Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

Beyond documentation of unabated plastic production, discard, and inadequate response, the findings include: that current commitments by major industries and governments are not even close to the established goals; that there is no single solution to the plastic challenges, upstream and downstream response needing to be deployed together; that change will require substantial shift of investment away from production and conversion of virgin plastic to new delivery models, substitutes, recycling facilities, and collection infrastructure; that high income countries, as the major producers, should take the lead in reduction; and that every delay simply exacerbates the problem.

What these findings conclude is, that despite assertion and intent, there is an underlying resistance to change that inhibits innovation and undermines progress. The explanation for this would seem to be the unwillingness of the plastic industry, a product based on oil, either to limit production, to invent and finance alternatives, or to redirect its profit motive toward redress, new forms of packaging, and other innovation without similar environmental and social consequence.

Governments seem disinterested; regulation is limited; the power of public opinion discounted with certain exceptions, the plastic bag foremost among them. Where I live, in a matter of months, the banning of plastic bags at supermarkets and other locations was enacted, motivated primarily by local activists who persevered, from the bottom up, through local ordinances and political will, demanded change and were successful almost overnight. It was an astonishing demonstration of public interest, and the plastic bag production and use around here was reduced to zero.

But one instance of success is not a plan. The Pew/SYSTEMIQ Report augmented its finding with recommendations, an outline of steps with examples that represents a coherent and provocative way forward…an issue that we will discuss next week here on World Ocean Forum.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 15 years this year, with more than 645 episodes produced to date.

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