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Tackling ocean plastic pollution

Oceans and the challenge of plastic waste

On a recent trip to Australia, I had the privilege of visiting the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney  which was hosting several exhibitions and displays to highlight the importance of oceans, their beauty, and the challenges that they face. A couple of highlights stood out during this visit:

  1. The Ocean Photographer of the Year displayed amazing wildlife photographs alongside the interaction of people with marine habitats. The exhibition encourages people to state why the ocean is important to them on a board at the end of the exhibition. Several of my favourite posts included drawings of different sea creatures.

  2. The Seabin tour: The lovely Seabin team allow visitors to enter the museum and take a look at their work to raise awareness of what washes up in Sydney Harbour.

  3. The Valerie Taylor exhibition highlighting the pioneering work undertaken by Valerie and her husband including trialing the first shark suits.


I wanted to focus on one challenge in particular, the issue of plastic waste which was a theme throughout many of the exhibits I visited. As the number of plastics consumed increases, it is important to consider ways in which manufacturers, retailers, businesses, and consumers can avoid, minimize, and remove the use of harmful plastics. Currently, is estimated to be over 170 trillion plastic particles in the ocean, weighing up to 4.9 trillion tonnes.


Why is this important?

In the 2019 Global Assessment Report from the International Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, plastic pollution was identified to have “increased tenfold since 1980, affecting at least 267 species, including 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds and 43 per cent of marine mammals” in addition the release of micro and nanoparticles are entering the food chain with potential consequences for human health[ii]. To help illustrate the challenge my colleague Ryan Twyford has shown the most common things found during the International Coastal Ocean Cleanup in 2022 in the following graphic [iii].



[ii] IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 1148 pages.

[iii] Ocean Conservancy. (August 25, 2023). Most common items found during the International Coastal Ocean Cleanup in 2022 [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved February 20, 2024, from

What's happening to address the issue?

In 2022 the Ministers of environment, heads of state, and other representatives from 175 UN Member States endorsed to End Plastic Pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. We will be watching to see what this could mean for businesses and individuals and the innovative solutions/projects that seek to address the issue. But for now, it is worth circling back to some examples focusing on Sydney.

Starting with the Seabin in Sydney Harbour which is located by the National Maritime Museum. The Seabin showed me how it works and talked through their sampling regime and what happens to the contents of a Seabin when emptied, it included drying, and the categorisation of particles including microplastics.  Interestingly, increasing numbers of vaping products have been captured in the harbour along with microplastics from astroturf, however, it’s sweet wrappers that make up the lion’s share. In addition to this CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), Australia’s National Science Agency, have deployed plastic traps in Sydney Harbour that utilise AI in an effort to reduce plastic wastes in Australia by 80% by 2030[iv]. 

[iv] CSIRO (2023). Reducing Litter in Sydney Harbour.

What does this mean for business?

Newer frameworks and regulations are focusing on full company value chains such as the @TNFD, @ESRS and @CDP, including what happens to waste at the end of the life of a product. This alongside more stringent requirements on the use and disposal of plastics driven by a potential international agreement on plastic waste show a direction of travel.

What can a business do?

  1. Start preparing to disclose against frameworks such as the recommendations from the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD)

  2. Look at your value-chain, in particular the downstream of your operations, and ask what happens to your products at the end of their life. Check out the great articles available on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website that focus on circularity as a way of addressing this issue

  3. Stay abreast of development on marine datasets and approaches to target setting by finding out about the development of Science-based targets for Oceans

  4. For a more UK context sign-up to @IEMA’s circular economy network.

  5. Support work promoting ocean conservation for example, my PhD supervisor part of a team of four intrepid women to row across the Atlantic in their boat ‘The Salty Science’ to raise money for conservation (for more info see here

  6. Think about using your company time to help the community by taking part in the International Coastal Cleanup. You can find more information about starting a cleanup here.

  7. Support actions to ban plastic pollution, think about joining a relevant sector based initiative such as the UK plastics pact

Why share these things?

It is easy to get caught up in the detail of what we do everyday and forget the bigger picture. My trip to Australia and my visit to the Australian National Maritime Museum reminded me of why I work in sustainability and how great it is to be part of an industry with so many exciting developments and innovative solutions that focus on the bigger picture.

If you are interested in our work, please take a look at our case study on the impact of a food and beverage company that produced a full valuation of 15 indicators, including ocean plastic packing pollution, to support the development of the client’s sustainability strategy.

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