The solution is not to collect plastic from the sea; it’s to prevent it from getting there

Article published in The Conversation. Written by Saray Ramírez Rodríguez; David Fernández Guerrero; Lourdes Reig Puig; Martín Federico Alba; and Riccardo Palazzolo Henkes.

Plastic pollution in the oceans has become a global problem. It is estimated that 14.5 million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea each year.

Over the past few years, numerous initiatives have emerged with the aim of reducing the impact of plastics on nature. But can we consider this a valid solution to the problem caused by the uncontrolled dumping of these waste materials?

Plastic and Its Interaction with the Ecosystem

The life of plastics doesn’t end once they reach the sea. The presence of certain plastic items, such as fishing gear in the case of ghost fishing, can have a negative impact on the survival of marine ecosystems.

However, plastics in the marine environment can also be utilized by various organisms that need to attach themselves to a surface. They can become the homes of bacteria, polyps, mollusks, and other living beings that otherwise couldn’t have colonized that space, thereby reforesting an area that may have been previously barren.

Similar to artificial reefs, the presence of these new substrates can encourage the creation of ecosystems that will become more complex over time, increasing the biodiversity of the area. This is why, on occasion, removing these residues from the environment after an ecosystem has developed around them can cause more destruction than allowing them to remain.

In addition to the potential harm to the environment, there are other factors that make the collection of plastic waste challenging, especially in the long term.

A Material That Loses Its Integrity

Firstly, the continuous physical and chemical stress that plastic undergoes in the sea leads to the fragmentation of macroplastics into micro and nanoplastics, with a diameter smaller than 5 mm.

Microplastics, despite their small size, cause numerous negative effects on the marine environment. Their tiny size makes them nearly impossible to detect and recover. Furthermore, their composition is so varied that their reuse is almost impossible.

Larger plastics are easier to detect, but this doesn’t make the task simple. Their buoyancy and low weight allow them to travel long distances before reaching new coastlines. Moreover, large accumulation zones can form, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

On the other hand, the heterogeneity and loss of quality in these waste materials reduce the likelihood of them being returned to a usable state, assuming we can recover them.

Conditions in the environment, weather, and the biological activity of marine microorganisms alter the integrity and chemical composition of plastics. This modification results in a decrease in the quality of plastic as a raw material and, consequently, a loss of interest from plastic buyers.

An Unprofitable Business

The lack of economic profitability in recycling marine plastic is one of the main challenges currently facing the industry. The issue is that its low economic value means that the necessary activities to extract it are not being developed.

The low-quality material is compounded by the high costs associated with the collection and cleaning of plastic waste. Plastic from the sea must be “captured” and brought ashore. Additionally, it is necessary to clean off biological remains or other contaminants that have adhered to its surface.

Currently, efforts are being made to raise awareness and incentivize fishermen to dedicate part of their activities to collecting plastics, especially not returning to the sea any plastic collected during fish extraction. However, the meager benefits they receive make it difficult to incorporate this economic activity into the sector.

All of these factors increase the cost of a lower-quality product compared to new plastic, which is already cheaper, and to waste that is already in the recycling cycle from its disposal. This is crucial for companies when choosing raw materials for their products. Consequently, plastic production continues instead of recycling or reusing plastic recovered from the sea.

Today, there are companies offering products made from recycled or recovered plastic. However, if you look closely at the raw material, it is likely that it does not come from the sea but has been recovered before being discarded. The purchase of waste is made directly from its generator, eliminating the costs associated with its recovery and treatment.

Necessary Changes in the Current Model

It is essential to develop and promote the valorization of used plastic as a product for use rather than as waste. This would be the best way to prevent it from ending up in the sea since the industry would capture it before it is discarded.

Although there are currently initiatives at the European and global levels promoting the use of recycled plastic in the industry, it is necessary to consolidate the implementation of circular economy practices. Producing companies must incorporate this reuse dynamic into their production processes. Consumers must demand environmentally friendly products and be willing to pay a little more for them.

To achieve this, technological advances are needed to better utilize existing waste, improve production and recycling processes. However, solutions go beyond technological innovation. Changes in legislation are needed to promote recycling and reuse, including actions such as banning the export of waste outside the European Union. Beyond policy changes, it is essential to promote social practices that support plastic reuse in line with circular economy principles.

As can be deduced from this analysis, once plastic reaches the sea, the problem becomes increasingly complex. The longer a waste item stays in the ocean, the less likely it is to ever leave. However, preventing plastics from reaching the sea requires addressing the problem from various angles, seeking technological, policy, and social innovations.