Unfortunately, the ocean has been exploited for decades, as most of the world thought it was too big to be ruined.
Much of the planet’s “exploration funding” has been sent to space since the 1960’s, leaving us with less knowledge about the ocean around us, than what is in space. As a result, the ocean has ended up as a recipient of our “ill-informed” assumption that the solution to pollution is dilution, and that there is enough out there in the “Big Blue” for everyone to take.
As our population has doubled since 1970, and consumption has escalated along with it, our resources have now become noticeably stressed, with almost all of our coastlines being impacted by plastic pollution – proof of our insufficient capacities on land to deal with recycling and waste management.
Having completed its fourth World Ocean Summit event, The Economist should be congratulated for bringing the issue of ocean protection to the both the business community and government leaders in an effective forum for creating collaborative solutions.
It is only in recent years that ocean health has really become more mainstream for the public, with plastic pollution being one of the most concerning (and solvable) topics. Even global companies, which are also not necessarily ocean-centric in their daily operations are now also becoming involved in the protection of our ocean’s resources.
With ocean acidification an enormous and highly difficult issue to combat, it is all the more important that we focus now on the topics that we can have a positive, shorter-term impact with, which include a big decrease in overfishing (“legal” or illegal), pollution reductions, reef restoration and natural coastal management, to name a few. As Dr. Sylvia Earle says, known as “Her Deepness” for her diving explorations, “if the ocean is not healthy, we are not healthy.”
Plastic pollution is now one of the most discussed issues, as it creates long term impacts, with a complex set of challenges, many of which need to be solved at federal or state government levels, and on land. If our town, cities and communities do not have a waste problem, then it will not make its way to our waters as easily, and this is where it is critical that companies become involved, as they make the products and materials that end up in the trash. Two recent reports are relevant here: one of which was launched at the World Economic Forum last month by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the “New Plastics Economy,” while the other was issued by Vulcan and Encourage Capital, “Sea of Opportunity - Supply Chain Investment Opportunities to Address Marine Plastic Pollution.”
One of the most interesting quotes from the event was from Rob Walton of the Walton Foundation (Walmart), when he said “we are not entitled to exist as a company unless we work sustainably.” This was in reference to their objective of selling only 100% sustainable seafood by 2020, it also links to their other business operations, which should include plastic packaging and materials that are used across most of their products.
They still have a long way to go, but given their global operations, each move towards sustainable practices and materials makes a big ripple. Most of Hong Kong’s retailers could learn from this focus, as they can help benefit the communities they serve by following similar goals of sustainability which multinational companies like Walmart are trying to achieve.
With plastic high on the agenda, and one of the top three issues discussed at the forum, expectations were high for broad-reaching solutions to reduce plastic waste. Although the world is now more aware of our plastic pollution challenges, easy and scalable examples have yet to be showcased at the level needed for substantial change.
Waste is a localized issue, and access to feedstock (material) for recycling or energy creation is dependent upon collection and recovery systems, which typically do not exist yet in efficient forms, including the “wealthy” city of Hong Kong. Collaboration (or competition), with the vested interests and pre-set contractors for waste hauling and landfill operators remains a key stumbling block in standardizing small to medium sized city resource recovery options.
There is no silver bullet for plastic pollution, and slowing the flow of our plasticized consumption habits will require creative, engaging, community-embracing programs that can scale in volume, but which can also incentivize and reward companies, governments and the communities to participate over the long term. This requires the minds, visions and acceptance by producers that they have a responsibility to the communities they serve, by taking care of the materials they disperse, even at the end of their initial life. The opportunities are vast, but the momentum to get the wheels turning on showing they work are only just beginning.
The ocean, in the mean time, is at least receiving a revival of interest and respect, which had been lacking in the previous few decades.