Image via The Plastiki
Guest post by Doug Woodring, Co-Founder/Director of Project Kaisei
The state of our ocean today is a perfect example of tragedy of the commons. We all use and take from the sea, but the majority of it is not "owned" or governed by any one country, much like the air we breathe, having no borders. As groups like Plastiki and Project Kaisei draw attention to the plight of the ocean, and the amount of waste in the North Pacific Gyre, the world is becoming shocked to know that this has all happened under our watch, and that it snuck under the radar to get to the scale it is today. This is because of the size, scale and relative underuse of the sea by the general population. Without using something, there is little appreciation for it, frame of reference to know what to compare to, and therefore, thought or knowledge of how to fix it. The Plastiki expedition has done a great job to inspire, challenge and prove. They allow people to learn more about the sea, what it has to offer, why it is crying, and how materials we use in our daily lives can be re-purposed into something truly remarkable. This drives creativity, knowledge and opportunities around a "waste resource" that most people buy, consume, and dispose of in a matter of minutes - plastic bottles.
National Geographic estimates that we use 85,000,000 bottles on this planet every three minutes.
That is roughly 2.7 bottles per person per day, and the growth in consumption has well outpaced our ability to capture all of this material back into the waste stream for recycling or other uses. Bottles are not the only material presenting us with challenges and new opportunities as they rapidly proliferate, but they are often the most widely seen.
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The challenge we face today is how to create a "bounty", or a value to the many types of waste that are being created from our consuming, disposing society. Most of this material has value to it, if aggregated in the proper way so that economies of scale can kick in and provide cost effective re-processing potential. As soon as there is value to something that now is worth nothing, people will find ways to collect and capture it for economic gain. How can we speed up this process on a global scale?
Many times the recycling technology may exist, but too often governments do not support or assist with the infrastructure needed for this new feedstock. The environment never gets improved upon in the scale it needs with purely volunteer efforts. Governments and companies will need to give incentives, and penalties, in order to shift the goal posts so that people can begin to treat waste materials in new ways. This will bring about a myriad of new technologies, innovations, jobs and the creativity that much of the world's countries strive for, yet they simply are not putting the basic frameworks in place to allow this to happen.
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Our economy is a 100% subsidiary of the ecology, yet until now, we have been raping and pillaging the environment as if there is an endless supply to go around. This is particularly the case with the oceans, with the lack of an ability to fully govern what gets taken from its waters. We can now see that this "freedom to exploit" is not endless, as our atmosphere is choking on our growing outputs, and our sea is suffocating due to the long lasting materials we are depositing to its shores, and vice versa. It is time that we really look at the materials we use in our daily lives, particularly the disposable ones, and ask if we really need something to last for hundreds of years when we just use it for 30 seconds to stir a drink?
The state of the ocean today should be the tipping point that wakes us up from the trance of consumption that we haven lulled into complacency with, and which sends us into a new era of material science, bio and ocean degradability, and new re-use technologies. We all need to help, as there is no easy single solution.
Governments can grab the opportunity for the benefit of growth and job creation, and companies can lead the way with their consumers and employees, really showing that they care about their surroundings and the markets they serve to. Brand loyalty from truly getting engaged, on complex issues, is what will set leading companies apart from those who continue to try to cut corners.
Plastiki has been an excellent focal point for the world's audience to learn more about the ocean and its plights. Their expedition is a great compliment to the work we are doing to bring together a collaborative team of science, technology, innovation, policy and education. We are already studying and testing ways in which we can begin to clean some of what we have put into the water over the years, while at the same time driving inspiration for prevention and opportunities that can be sustainable for the long run. We all have heard of Gen X and Gen Y, now we need to all work together to make sure there is no Generation Zero.