Some eight million tonnes of plastic enter rivers and oceans each year, threatening the planet’s freshwater and marine ecosystems. Given the borderless nature of this pollution, solutions require creative new ways of thinking, new technologies and, most importantly, collaboration, says Douglas Woodring.
What was your reaction to winning the Prince’s Prize for Innovative Philanthropy?
The prize is a powerful endorsement and validation of the global work we have been doing from Hong Kong over the past decade. Now that much of the world has awoken to the scale of the plastic issue, more companies and governments are embracing the programmes we have already been running for a number of years to tackle the problem. The award has shone further light on this.
What are these programmes?
The Plastic Disclosure Project, which works to reduce the environmental impact of the world’s rising use of plastics in products and packaging, and our Global Alert app, which allows people to report trash hotspots anywhere in the world’s waters. Both have been endorsed by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank. The Ocean Recovery Alliance is also the founder and organiser of the Plasticity Forum, launched at the Rio+20 Earth Summit eight years ago, which focuses on the future of plastic sustainability without leaving a plastic-waste footprint.
How did you become interested in plastic pollution and finding ways to reduce it?
The real eye-opening moment for me came when I was diving on the outermost reef in Palau about 10 years ago. The place was absolutely remote and yet there was plastic packaging and trash suspended at all levels of the water column, even 20 metres deep, in crystal-clear water. It made me wonder where it came from and why the world wasn’t talking about it.
What are the biggest threats from the improper disposal of plastic waste?
The threats are on a global scale and are felt daily even more than climate change at the moment, and by a larger slice of the population. Plastic is composed of major toxic pollutants, so it has the potential to cause great harm to the environment in the form of air, water and land pollution. Besides plants and wildlife, it is also harmful to humans. Its compounds can act as carriers of third-party toxins into our food chain, but also lead to fishing, agriculture and marine damage.
How can plastics manufacturers, commercial users and consumers work together to reduce waste?
For too long, the business sector and governments have put the blame on consumers, saying that it’s us who are littering or aren’t educated enough. But if people don’t have the facilities, infrastructure and systems to become aware of the issue, they are not to blame.
Companies are the most powerful actors in this equation, as they have the funds and resources for R&D, as well as the choice to source and use better materials for the products they put into the market.
Is the current generation more aware of ocean plastic pollution?
Yes, and this awareness is growing in Asia as well. But we still have a long way to go. Too many places, including high-end restaurants and five-star hotels, continue to use plastic straws and swizzle sticks. We need to be more on top of both local and global issues.
Making more changes—as small as they might seem, as in the case of dropping plastic straws—is essential to keep us moving in the right direction. Social media can play a big role here in exposing the bad, and promoting and championing the good.
What are your top tips to reduce plastic consumption?
Avoid unnecessary plastic items and packaging whenever possible. Do not use disposable plastic plates, forks, cutlery and so on when having parties or events. Do not use foam lunch boxes, and ask your vendor why they are still using them if you are served one.
Recycle, always, and have your company or school undertake the Plastic Disclosure Project—it’ll reveal a lot about the plastic waste they produce and help save money in the long term, which is a win for everyone. We also need companies and governments to greatly increase their use of recycled content in products and to decrease the use of virgin materials.