Innovation That Matters

5 things to know about the ocean plastic problem, and how to fix it


Key takeaways from a recent virtual event on the issue of ocean plastic pollution, in support of 1% for The Planet and co-hosted by Springwise.

During a recent digital discussion on the issue of ocean plastic pollution, in support of 1% for The Planet and co-hosted by Springwise, leading ocean advocate Emily Penn presented on the extent and complexities of the ocean plastic problem, and what the business community can do to help.

“There is no silver bullet solution to the ocean plastic problem. The good news is there are hundreds of ways to solve it! We need a multidisciplinary and multicultural approach, tackling the issue from all angles. We all need to find our role and work together,” said Emily, Co-Founder & Director of eXXpedition — a pioneering all-female sailing voyage and scientific research mission to circumnavigate the globe via four ocean Gyres and the Arctic. 

Here are five key takeaways from this excellent discussion.


1. The ocean plastic problem affects poor, local island communities

One thing Emily noticed whilst sailing around the world, was that local island communities were struggling to catch fish and grow crops, due to the amount of plastic floating around. During a clean-up on the islands of Tonga, Emily’s crew and volunteers collected 56 tonnes of rubbish in just five hours. Because of this, islanders are resorting to burning the plastic to get rid of it, which releases toxic chemicals and harms the local community.

The crew found through talking to the locals that they didn’t even have the language for “rubbish”, or “bin”, so new was the problem to them. Not only do small island communities like this need the right infrastructure to cope with the problem, but they need a whole new way of thinking.

2. It’s happening on the land first

There are hundreds of different types of plastics, all of which must be separated before one type can be properly recycled. As a result, only 9 per cent of it ends up being recycled, evading the landfill process and heading into drains and sewers, where it eventually finds its way to streams, rivers, and then the sea.

Emily found that even when sailing hundreds of miles away from civilisation, there was plastic floating around their boat. Moreover, when the plastic forms big mounds, sea-life ecosystems mistake it for coral reefs and attach themselves underneath.

This is hugely problematic because the plastic mounds float a lot further than the coral reefs would, taking the ecosystems into waters in which they can’t survive.

3. Microplastics are the biggest worry

Although the plastic mounds are easy to spot, what Emily and her crew found was that analysing samples of ocean water and ocean species revealed the presence of microplastics on a gargantuan scale. This is because although the big plastics break down due to the UV light on the oceans, they just get smaller, rather than decomposing. This makes it almost impossible to find them and clean them up.

“There are over 5 trillion fragments of plastic floating in our oceans, and many times that sinking to the depths of the ocean. Trying to clean up our ocean is an enormous challenge so instead, we need to turn off the tap of plastic finding its way into the sea in the first place,” Emily said.


4. The plastics get into our blood and affect our health, especially that of women

One of the most threatening findings, said Emily, was how these microplastics get into the food chain, at the top of which lies humans, who are at great risk. Emily conducted a test on herself and found that nine plastic chemicals were present in her blood. This gives everyone a chemical footprint and reveals a lot more about the extent of the problem than is widely acknowledged.

These chemicals could have a severe effect on our health, for they can mimic hormones and stop your body from responding to certain illnesses. This is a particular risk to pregnant women, not only because they can have an impact on hormones during pregnancy, but because they can be passed onto babies.


5. We need to solve the issue from the source

Emily outlined a four-part process for working out the issue, the goal of which is to trace back to the source and involves: avoiding, closing the loop, down-cycling and minimising damage.

Once the plastic is correctly identified, it is easier to work out how to deal with it. To trace back to the source, it is vital that businesses and industries collaborate with environmentalists, and that global diversity is maintained, as a way of solving a global problem.

“We all have a role in solving the plastic pollution issue. We need individuals, companies and governments all working together to create shifts in their lives, industries and the wider world,” Emily said.

The amazing community of 1% for The Planet business and individual members are taking action every day to work towards solutions to protect our home planet. Do you know someone who may be interested in joining 1% for the Planet? Please support us in spreading our mission by recommending them to join our global movement.