1. The ocean plastic challenge is larger than we thought and growing rapidly... but it is concentrated in a few regions

New research has materially expanded our understanding of  both the volume and dispersion of ocean plastic emissions. Rather than 8 million tons of plastics entering into the ocean every year, we now believe more than 13 million tons are spilling into our seas -- a dump truck full every single second, or around 4% of plastic material produced annually [1]. This ocean plastic pollution is coming from three primary sources - poor waste management near the coast (5-8Mt) [2] and rivers (0.8-1.5Mt), sea based dumping (2.2-3.2Mt) and textile, tires and other microplastics (0.8-2.5 Mt). Our current focus is on waste management, 70-80% of total ocean plastic pollution. 

However, over half of global ocean plastic pollution comes from just five rapidly developing economies - China, Indonesia, the Philippines  Vietnam and Thailand [2], helping us prioritize our efforts.

2. We need to move away from linear take-make-dispose models to clean, circular, zero waste systems where waste is first reduced and then collected and given a 2nd, 3rd and 4th life

Today, just 14% of global plastic packaging is recycled and the rest is used once and thrown away. But the ultimate "away" is the ocean. Circular waste systems are not only possible, they're required to jumpstart a more economically viable, and therefore scalable and sustainable waste management revolution. However to jumpstart this shift, faster innovation is needed in both product design and recycling/processing technologies.

Chart sourced from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's The New Plastic Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics

3. Waste management is challenging to solve because it operates as an integrated system, requiring multiple interlocking issues to be solved simultaneously

Waste management operates as an integrated system. If only one part of the value chain is addressed, remaining constraints simply move the bottleneck to another part of the waste value chain. Therefore, achieving long term sustainable and significant marine debris reduction is possible only if all constraints are unlocked simultaneously, which few organizations have managed to do successfully, and fewer still at scale.

Key bottlenecks across the waste value chain

4. It all starts with waste collection and low value plastics

Collection is the foundation of the entire waste management system, and the single most important lever for keeping plastics and other waste out of the ocean. Uncollected waste accounts for 75% of land-based leakage. Without clean collection systems, waste recyclers and processors do not have a consistent supply of quality feedstock. However, the value of the collected mixed waste stream, especially when the majority of “high value” recyclables are removed by the informal sector, is too low to offset the cost required to collect and dispose of the waste. The gap between cost and value results in a disincentive for cities to collect waste – the more they collect, the more they will need to spend on transportation, vehicle maintenance and landfill tipping fees, and the quicker their landfill will become full.

Not all plastics are created equal. Plastics like thin films, plastic bags, and sachets have little or no value, and constitute more than 60% of plastics in the ocean. Very few markets for these exist, and the ones that do are generally concentrated in few geographic areas.

5. To reach significant scale, circular waste systems need to be economically, environmentally and technically viable 

Entrepreneurial forces are more sustainable long term than ongoing waste funding support (although both are needed for early system change). Therefore maximizing waste value and minimizing system cost are essential to achieve significant waste management improvements at scale. Doing so requires thoughtfully designing the entire waste management system as one integrated whole to reduce overhead, land and transport costs and to create the highest quality waste derived output for market. 

Seven levers to improve waste economics [3]
  1. Increase collection volumes and aggregate waste to generate enough scale (waste economics is low margin, requiring significant scale to break even)

  2. Employ household wet/dry separation for a cleaner, uncontaminated and therefore more homogeneous, and valuable waste feedstock

  3. Give informal waste pickers the opportunity (but not the mandate) to work with the formal waste system in an entrepreneurial way, thereby improving health and livelihoods while capturing a greater portion of "high value" waste into the formal waste system

  4. Process organics at a net gain (rather than net drain) - making up the largest portion of the waste stream and having the lowest economic utility, organic treatment decisions are key

  5. Build vertically integrated waste systems so that all activities reinforce efficient waste processing and land, transport and overhead costs can be reduced

  6. Use "manipulation" technologies to separate, dry and clean waste prior to waste processing, for material processing efficiency gains

  7. Secure longterm offtake agreements for waste processed end projects (e.g., recyclate, naphtha, plastic wood, etc.)

6. All products sold into a market should be able to be recycled in that market, or be connected to an efficient supply chain that brings them to a recycling "hub"

Today few waste recycling/processing hubs exist in each country and logistics costs can be too expensive to justify shipment. Countries need a system of regional waste recycling/processing "hubs" served by efficient, clean waste transport "spokes", with new hubs ideally located where plastic pollution levels are greatest, e.g., Eastern Indonesia. For hubs to be viable, they also need strong market commitments for waste output, ideally driven by product producers. 

Given historically difficult transactions and limited upside, investors continue to feel waste management offers a return too low for the perceived risk. However stacked funding is needed from government, development finance, the private sector and private investors to provide four primary types of capitol -- (1) catalytic collection and sortation development, (2) Recycling micro-finance, (3) Recycling/processing infrastructure financing and (4) moonshot technology seed financing

7. Investment is needed, without which there will continue to be severe system inefficiencies and higher operating costs in waste systems

Notes and sources

[1] Vital Ocean team analysis, with data sourced from Jenna R. Jambeck et al., “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean,” Science 347, no. 6223 (2015): 768–71, doi:10.1126/science.1260352; Laurent C. M. Lebreton et al., “River Plastic Emissions to the World’s Oceans,” Nature Communications 8 (June 7, 2017), doi:10.1038/ncomms15611 and Julien Boucher and Damien Friot, “Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources” (Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, 2017).

[2] Jenna R. Jambeck et al., “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean,”.  This is largely based on the findings of the article in Science, ibid., with a modification that substitutes Thailand for Sri Lanka, which our methodology suggests contributes a lower quantity of ocean plastic than that originally reported.

[3] Levers adjusted from those originally noted in “The Next Wave: Investment strategies for plastic free seas,” Ocean Conservancy and the Trash Free Seas Foundation, Febr., 2017.