Plastic, not fantastic: Why our oceans need you, me and everyone in between

Volunteers gather bags with garbage during a trash collection at Kolovrechtis wetland near Halkida, Evia island. (Thanassis Stavrakis, AP)
Volunteers gather bags with garbage during a trash collection at Kolovrechtis wetland near Halkida, Evia island. (Thanassis Stavrakis, AP)

I get asked frequently, why do you care so much about the oceans?  What does your job in technology have to do with ocean health?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

A healthy world ocean is critical to our survival. This magnificent body of water flows over nearly three-quarters of the planet, holds 97% of our water and produces more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere. It impacts all of us, the health of our families, our communities and our businesses.

However, despite commitments from governments, vocal campaigns with celebrity endorsement and a lot of people talking about the issue, our oceans are still in danger.

Each year, more than eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean, over time breaking into trillions of microplastic particles, which only leave the ocean when they are ingested by sea life and enter the human food chain – the average seafood eater consumes 11,000 plastic particles per year. Ocean plastics impact the environment, human health and, ultimately, are threat to the future of our planet, making this an issue everyone should care about.

Where do we start to tackle the plastic problem?

Any attempt to reduce plastic waste, be it on an individual or organisational level, is a step in the right direction. Campaigns like #StopSucking or The Last Straw are fantastic gateways to highlighting plastic pollution; raising awareness and starting to educate a wider audience.

However, a key theme that came to light at a recent roundtable held by Dell and Lonely Whale, was that while there has been a lot of research into the ocean plastic problem, not enough is actually being done to tackle the problem.

On an individual level, the advice for preventing plastic pollution is straightforward – do your part and be smart in everyday actions – we can all make a difference. Yet the roundtable discussion, which included representatives from CIEL, Common Seas, World Resources Institute and Interface, showed that while individual impacts matter, alone they aren’t enough.

Instead, we need governments, businesses and NGOs to be held accountable and make commitments to remove the plastic that is already in the ocean, prevent more from entering, and make sustainable decisions that limit plastic production.

Actions speak louder than words

When speaking at the recent roundtable, Kristian Teleki, Director of the Sustainable Ocean Initiative at the World Resources Institute, noted that there were notable new levels of interest in plastic pollution in the public, political and private spheres. As such, there is now a clear end goal to decouple waste generation from economic growth.

Until that happens, governments around the world have made commitments to address the plastic problem. It is, however, important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution; what works in France might not work in Egypt, and we need to consider that there are different starting points for each country. Each government needs to invest in individual infrastructures that allow for waste solutions that can scale at a speed that meets the problem at hand.

This is a daunting task, and the improvements to infrastructure that need to occur aren’t going to happen overnight. It is unsurprising, therefore, that we are increasingly seeing governments pull out of sustainability agreements, face a lack of accountability, or simply promise to make changes but not actually take any action.

Be it due to an absence of investment in infrastructure or poor visibility into a country's waste disposal or recycling system, governments across the globe are failing to offer sufficient waste management solutions. So it is up to businesses to take the lead in plastic innovation and reducing waste in our oceans.

Pledges that keep plastics in the economy 

There may be no way to reverse the damage already done by ocean plastics. However, there is an opportunity to transform the way we think about the issue. Companies have begun to reimagine plastic waste as a resourceful material, noting the positive economic and sustainable impact of utilising plastic waste rather than virgin materials in their production lines.

Companies such as Adidas, Trek and Herman Miller, among others, have incorporated ocean plastics into their products, as packaging, furniture or footwear. Then there’s McDonalds, removing single-use plastics as an option.

Businesses have to start taking action, looking into how they can reuse plastic waste and alternative materials. This is why Dell, in addition to using ocean-bound plastic in our product packaging, is going strawless at our facilities globally, in honour of World Ocean Day. 

The good news is that commercial sustainability is driven by customer enthusiasm, innovation and cost cutting – it isn’t just great for the environment. Consumers are increasingly looking to help tackle the plastics problem by making green purchasing decisions.

Lastly, businesses leading the sustainable, ocean-bound plastic movement will be ready to comply with future plastic waste regulations – especially as governments are increasingly looking to do their part in helping our ocean through new plastic related taxes. 

Collaboration is crucial

While individual sustainability goals drive innovation, it is so important to collaborate with customers, governments and even competitors. After all, in the long term, alleviating the ocean plastic problem is going to make a difference for all of us, and we can’t do it alone.

For this reason, companies who have pioneered new ways of using ocean plastics are already sharing knowledge and blueprints for projects that have worked well for them, so that others can build upon and learn from these ideas.

An example of this is an open-source initiative called NextWave, which convened leading technology and consumer-focused companies to develop the first-ever commercial-scale ocean-bound plastics and nylon supply chain, while also ensuring economic and social benefits for multiple stakeholders. The founding list of companies include Dell, General Motors, Trek Bicycle, Herman Miller, Interface, Van de Sant, Humanscale and Bureo, with others able to apply easily to join the cause. The companies are collaborating with scientists and advocates working with marine litter and ocean health, to advise on a sustainable model supporting the needs of coastal communities and environments.

There is also Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance, to finance solutions for marine debris or advice resources such as Lonely Whale, a group facilitating innovative ideas to maintain the health of our oceans.

The time is now

Eventually, no doubt, governments across the world will invest in the necessary infrastructures, and enforce the changes we need them to make. In the meantime, the road to sustainable production and business practices can seem long, but early believers and adopters will win hearts and minds in the future.

* David Lear is vice-president of Corporate Sustainability at Dell and is involved with the NextWave initiative. To find out more about NextWave or more sustainable practices, click here.

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