Source: Ocean Conservancy
In February 2015, a groundbreaking paper was published in the journal Science that estimated, for the first time, how much plastic was entering the ocean from land due to mismanaged waste. The Science paper ranked all 192 coastal countries according to plastic leakage into the ocean and highlighted that improving waste management around the world was a critical component to keeping plastics out of our ocean. In September 2015, Ocean Conservancy released Stemming the Tide, a report developed with outside consultants, that built upon the estimates published in Science.
In Stemming the Tide, Ocean Conservancy focused solely on minimizing the amount of plastics entering the ocean. We investigated and included incineration and waste-to-energy as acceptable solutions to the ocean plastic crisis, which was wrong. We failed to confront the root causes of plastic waste or incorporate the effects on the communities and NGOs working on the ground in the places most impacted by plastic pollution. We did not consider how these technologies support continued demand for plastic production and hamper the move to a circular economy and a zero-carbon future. Further, by focusing so narrowly on one region of the world (East and Southeast Asia), we created a narrative about who is responsible for the ocean plastic pollution crisis – one that failed to acknowledge the outsized role that developed countries, especially the United States, have played and continue to play in generating and exporting plastic waste to this very region. This too was wrong.
We apologize for the framing of this report and unequivocally rescind any direct or indirect endorsement of incineration as a solution to ocean plastic pollution. Accordingly, Stemming the Tide is no longer available on our website and we have ceased all promotion and reference of it. Waste management and recycling remain critical to solving plastic pollution, but these strategies must be paired with greater efforts to reduce virgin plastic production and as part of a larger move toward a circular economy. Incineration is antithetical to these efforts and to Ocean Conservancy’s commitment to a healthier ocean protected by a more just world.
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Recent peer-reviewed science
Please find below two peer-reviewed journal articles that more accurately highlight the global roles and responsibilities, including those of western nations, in stopping ocean plastic pollution and the needed, holistic solutions that are founded on principles of a circular economy:
“Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution”
Lau et al.’s paper, published in the journal Science (Vol. 369, Issue 6510, 23. July 2020), estimates the effectiveness of interventions to reduce plastic pollution. The authors make recommendations on the needed interventions to reduce plastic consumption and increase reuse while simultaneously increasing waste management capacity across all economies, and massively scaling up environmental cleanup of the remaining plastics that flow into waterways and the ocean.
“The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean”
Law et al.’s paper, published in Science Advances (Vol. 6, No. 44, 30. October 2020), reveals that the U.S. ranks as high as third among countries contributing to coastal plastic pollution and challenges the widely-held belief that the U.S. is adequately “managing”—that is, collecting and properly landfilling, recycling or otherwise containing—its plastic waste. The findings underscore that the U.S. has outsourced its massive “plastic waste footprint” to developing countries and in so doing, become a top contributor to the global ocean plastics crisis.
What constitutes plastics recycling?
The renowned “chasing arrows” recycling symbol represents, ideally, a closed-loop or circular economy for materials. For plastics, this means that plastic materials and products are collected, processed, and manufactured into new products again and again. This reduces waste, pollution, and the need for new/virgin plastics, 99% of which are derived from fossil fuels (SOURCE: CIEL). For more information, please see this Ocean Conservancy fact sheet on what is and what is not recycling.
Our position on chemical recycling
Ocean Conservancy does not presently support any form of chemical recycling. In its current form, chemical recycling does not contribute to a circular plastics economy because it is not plastics-to-plastics recycling and creates environmental and social harms that are inconsistent with our goal of a healthier ocean supported by a more just world. At the same time, chemical recycling distracts from implementing much-needed systemic fixes to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and improve waste management and recycling systems. For more information, please read Ocean Conservancy’s Chemical Recycling Policy Position.