I see a sea shell on the sea shore. Or is it a plastic bottle?

Manan-VastsyayanaGrace Hanley, OECD Environment Directorate

An Ellen MacArthur Foundation report predicts that by 2050, there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish. One result is so-called ocean “garbage patches” like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which scientists have estimated to be about twice the size of Texas (See a NOAA map of the garbage patches here). An astounding 90% of this floating garbage pile is plastic, which should alarm us; but it shouldn’t surprise us considering every piece of plastic created still exists. It is a material that the Earth cannot digest and thus the way we use it and dispose of it must be carefully considered.Unfortunately, according to the Foundation’s report, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally, and that 95% of the value of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy, or around $80 to $120 billion a year.

I’m not suggesting that we suddenly stop using plastic. That would be both impossible and impractical. In fact, there are great benefits to plastic. Plastic is a resource that cross-cuts every industry imaginable and on some levels can even help protect the environment by containing hazardous waste and preserving the life of machines and other products that would otherwise lose their ability to function, or corrode and be discarded. Plastic packaging can extend the shelf life of food that would otherwise be wasted and its light weight can also help reduce the amount of fuel needed to transport goods. In the medical industry antimicrobial plastic helps to stop the spread of diseases in hospitals and can both repel and kill bacteria on surfaces highly trafficked by patients and doctors.

Yet, the disadvantages of plastic use are severe and although we have the ability to drastically reduce our plastic production, consumption and waste, we are not in the habit of doing so. Whatever happened to recycling? Reduction relies on human behaviour, but humans are inherently lazy. It is much easier to dump everything into one bin than deal with sorting your glasses, cardboards, plastics, papers, compostable food and materials, and general rubbish.

However, it also important to note that it doesn’t always come down to individual choice. Often, infrastructure does not make recycling an easy option, which is why policymakers should strongly consider the benefits of creating comprehensive recycling infrastructure and incentives to engage in recycling. It’s hard enough to get people to recycle when ready-made clear recycling systems are in place, so when the infrastructure is confusing, inefficient or seemingly unattainable, the likelihood of recycling is drastically decreased.

Another issue is that waste quickly becomes something that is out of sight, out of mind. Most of us do not see where our rubbish goes. You take out the trash, a truck comes to collect it and poof—you never think about it again, until you start to see plastic bottles in the ocean and realise you should have taken those extra ten steps to put your bottle in the recycling bin.

Forecast of plastics volume growth and impact

plastics forecast

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The reality is that we’re not going to stop using plastic, but we can and we should start using it more responsibly. We can minimise our economic losses and environmental impacts by putting responsibility before convenience. Change the way you use, consume and discard plastic and convince others to as well so that we can collectively mitigate environmental and economic losses. This can be done by making lifestyle decisions that are equally beneficial to the consumers, the environment and the economy. For example, instead of buying a disposable plastic water bottle every day, you can buy a reusable one. This will both save you money and reduce potential pollution.

Moreover, it is the responsibility of governments to create and enforce laws that provide awareness and give people economic incentives to change their behaviour. A positive example of this is the plastic bag ban. The first city to implement a ban was Dhaka in 2002 in response to drain blockages caused by plastic bags responsible for flooding. This increased the spread of water-borne diseases and put pressure on infrastructure. In 2003, a surcharge on plastic bags in Ireland had a significant impact on consumer behaviour—the public almost unanimously opted for reusable totes in favour of plastic bags. Today, we continue to see a number of cities jump on board to ban or tax the bag in Rwanda, Australia, South Africa, Kenya, China, Italy, the United States, France and several others. Recently, England added a £0.05 surcharge on plastic bags and immediately saw an 85% drop in usage.

Another important legislative trend fighting plastic pollution is the microbead ban. These tiny pieces of plastics used in cosmetic products to exfoliate are so small that they cannot be filtered out of our water systems, meaning they end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Even worse, we end up eating them in our seafood. According to a Greenpeace analysis of 58 international studies, 170 types of widely consumed seafood products were found to contain microplastics. So if the idea of eating plastic makes you uncomfortable, you should push your government to reconsider selling products containing microbeads. One of the first politicians to bring attention to the issue was the Dutch Minister of Environment, Jacqueline Cramer in 2009 . Since then, Denmark has been pushing for a microbead ban in Europe; and in 2015 President Obama signed a bill prohibiting products containing microbeads in the United States.

Over the last decade, the environmental degradation caused by plastic has become increasingly apparent. In response, we have seen positive changes in legislation that aim to minimise and reduce our plastic usage in order to protect our marine ecosystems. However, our plastic habit is still unsettling and we must continue to push ourselves and our neighbours to change the way we use and dispose of it. On top of this, we must ensure that our government leaders and laws reflect responsible practice. Old habits die hard, but when we look at the damage that plastic causes to ourselves and our planet, it’s evident that it is a habit well worth breaking.

So, if you don’t want to see plastic floating in the waters on your next beach holiday—and I truly hope you don’t – act. It’s difficult to justify the dissatisfaction of those who choose inaction.

Useful links

Policies for Bioplastics in the Context of a Bioeconomy OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers

OECD project on the future of the ocean economy

The New Plastics Economy World Economic Forum

The trillion dollar ocean

ocean economyClaire Jolly, Head, Ocean Economy Group / OECD Space Forum,  and Barrie Stevens, Senior Advisor, OECD Science and Technology Policy Division

For some, the ocean is the new economic frontier. It holds the promise of immense resource wealth and great potential for boosting economic growth, employment and innovation. And it is increasingly recognised as indispensable for addressing many of the global challenges facing the planet in the decades to come, from world food security and climate change to the provision of energy, natural resources and improved medical care. While the potential of the ocean to help meet these challenges is huge, it is already under stress from over-exploitation, pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change.

Calculations based on the OECD’s Ocean Economy Database value the ocean economy’s output (measured in terms of the ocean-based industries’ contribution to economic output and employment) in 2010 at USD 1.5 trillion, or approximately 2.5% of world gross value added (GVA). Offshore oil and gas accounted for one-third of total value added of the ocean based industries, followed by maritime and coastal tourism, maritime equipment and ports. Direct full-time employment in the ocean economy amounted to around 31 million jobs in 2010. The largest employers were industrial capture fisheries with over one-third of the total, and maritime and coastal tourism with almost one-quarter.

Economic activity in the ocean is expanding rapidly. However, an important constraint on the development of the ocean economy is the deterioration of its health. The ocean has absorbed much of the anthropogenic carbon emissions, leading to ocean acidification. Also, sea temperatures and sea levels are rising and ocean currents shifting, resulting in biodiversity and habitat loss, changes in fish stock composition and migration patterns, and higher frequency of severe ocean weather events. The prospects for future ocean development are further aggravated by land-based pollution, in particular agricultural run-off, chemicals, and plastics, as well as by overfishing and depleted fish stocks in many parts of the world.

Looking to 2030, many ocean-based industries have the potential to outperform the growth of the global economy as a whole, both in terms of value added and employment. Between 2010 and 2030 on a “business-as-usual” basis, the ocean economy could more than double its contribution to global value added, reaching over USD 3 trillion. Particularly strong growth is expected in marine aquaculture, offshore wind energy, fish processing, and shipbuilding and repair. Ocean industries also have the potential to make an important contribution to employment growth. In 2030, they are anticipated to employ approximately 40 million full-time equivalent jobs in the business as-usual scenario. The fastest growth in jobs is expected to occur in offshore wind energy, marine aquaculture, fish processing and port activities.

In the coming decades, scientific and technological advances are expected to play a crucial role both in addressing many ocean-related environmental challenges and in the development of ocean-based economic activities. Innovation in advanced materials, subsea engineering and technology, sensors and imaging, satellite technologies, computerisation and big data analytics, autonomous systems, biotechnology and nanotechnology – every sector of the ocean economy – stands to be affected by these technological advances.

Expected growth of ocean-based industries highlights the prospect of growing pressures on ocean resources and ocean space already under considerable stress, not least in economic exclusion zones (EEZs), where most of the activity takes place. The inability so far to deal with these pressures in an effective, timely way is in large part due to what is historically a sector-by-sector management of marine activities. At least for the foreseeable future, regulation of ocean activities is expected to continue to be largely sector-driven, with efforts focusing on the integration of emerging ocean industries into existing and fragmented regulatory frameworks. The number of countries and regions putting in place strategic policy frameworks for better ocean management within their EEZs has increased in recent years in response to growing pressures.

In order to boost the long-term development prospects of emerging ocean industries and their contribution to growth and employment, while managing the ocean in responsible, sustainable ways, a number of steps could be taken to enhance the sustainable development of the ocean economy.

Reinforce international co-operation in maritime science and technology as a means to stimulate innovation and strengthen the sustainable development of the ocean economy. This entails undertaking comparative analyses and reviews of the role of government policy regarding maritime clusters around the world, notably in respect of their effectiveness in stimulating and supporting cross-industry technological innovations in the maritime domain; and establishing international networks for the exchange of views and experience in establishing centres of excellence, innovation incubators and other innovation facilities in the field of cross-industry maritime technologies, and improving the sharing of technology and innovation among countries at different levels of development.

Strengthen integrated ocean management. In particular, this should involve greater use of economic analysis and economic tools, for example by establishing international platforms for the exchange of knowledge, experience and best practice, and by stepping up efforts to evaluate the economic effectiveness of public investment in marine research and observation. It should promote innovation in governance structures, processes and stakeholder engagement to render integrated ocean management more effective, more efficient and more inclusive.

Improve the statistical and methodological base at national and international level for measuring the scale and performance of ocean-based industries and their contribution to the overall economy. This could include further development of the OECD’s Ocean Economy Database.

Build more capacity for ocean industry foresight, including the assessment of future changes in ocean-based industries, and further development of the OECD’s current capacity for modelling future trends in the ocean economy at a global scale.

Useful links

The OECD Future of the Ocean Economy Project

Contact: Claire Jolly: [email protected] Barrie Stevens: [email protected]

Expo 2012 in Yeosu, Korea: The Blue Economy

Click to see the “Living Ocean and Coast” theme of Expo 2012

How much are the oceans worth? Somewhere between $16 and $54 trillion a year according to this report. It may be more, nobody really knows, although Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), a global partnership of developed and developing countries, international organisations, NGOs and academics, is hoping to find out over the next few years.

The Global Partnership for the Oceans cites figures for some parts of the ocean. Coral reefs for instance provide services to humans worth $172 billion annually. Fisheries are even more lucrative, with seafood sales at $190 billion a year for the catches alone, before the value added by processing. You could add another $50 billion if the fisheries were managed efficiently, according to a World Bank study quoted in Rebuilding Fisheries, a new OECD publication launched this week during OECD Day at Expo 2012 in Yeosu, Korea.

One statistic you’ll see quoted in most discussions about the oceans’ importance is that they cover 71% of the Earth’s surface. What’s less well-known is that the oceans supply almost 99% of the “living space” for our planet’s creatures, far more than the vertical strip of soil and sky we usually think about when biodiversity is mentioned. Very few humans live for long in this space, but two-thirds of us are within 100 km of the sea,  so coastal cities feature prominently in discussions of the blue economy (and in the data visualization tool our colleagues at the OECD Factblog developed for the Expo).

The theme of Expo 2012 is the “blue economy” – the various activities taking place on, under or near the ocean. As one of the world’s leading shipbuilding, trading and fishing nations, Korea has a vested interest in using ocean resources in a sustainable way. However, the aim of the exhibition, and the OECD’s contribution to it, is to show that the oceans are vital for all of us. On a global scale, for example, they regulate the world’s climate and provide 16% of the animal proteins we consume. They are important sources of oil and gas, and increasingly of renewable energies too.

Unfortunately, our attitudes have changed little from earlier times when it made sense to talk of “the infinite oceans”. Now, 85% of ocean fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited or depleted. Fertilizer run-off and fossil-fuel use have created 405 oxygen-starved dead zones worldwide, compared with 49 in the 1960s, covering a total area the size of the UK. While we’re making geographical comparisons, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” drifting around the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, known as covers the ocean with plastic debris over an area as big as Texas. And according to some reports, just 15 of the world’s biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world’s 760m cars.

None of these problems can be solved in isolation from the others, nor from a variety of external influences. Fisheries reform for instance can influence and be influenced by labour policy, regional development, environmental legislation, taxes, and tourism, and that’s just on a national scale. A similar list could be drawn up for any ocean-related issue, prompting OECD Deputy Secretary-General Yves Leterme to call for “a more holistic policy perspective to the management of the oceans, their uses and resources” in Yeosu. Leterme and the President of the Korea Maritime Institute (KMI), Dr.Hak-So Kim signed a Statement of Intent between the two organisations which underlines their intention to strengthen co-operation on work related to the future of the blue economy.

The Blue Economy – click to watch the video