Just imagine trying to pick up soup with a fork and you’ll understand the challenge of tackling microplastics in the ocean. We’re talking about millions of microscopic pieces of plastic, so how do you even begin to clean up? Seeing the scale of the problem and realizing we’ll never see plastic-free oceans again took a real emotional toll on the crew – it was heartbreaking.
What surprised Kristine was that the further she got from land, the more plastic she saw, which seemed counter-intuitive. At one point their vessel was closer to the International Space Station than it was to any land mass, but the litter kept coming.
Kristine said: “When you’ve sailed for ten days, it seems like forever, and you lose concept of time and distance. But we kept seeing items like toothbrushes, toilet seats, washing baskets and takeaway menus floating by. It was bizarre to think we were thousands of nautical miles away from any other people, islands, or boats yet we were seeing things from someone’s bathroom. Unbelievably, at our furthest point from land, we found the highest number of plastic particles in our trawl samples.”
Remembering “litter” can be a resource
There is no “silver bullet” that will fix the ocean plastic problem, and while coastal clean-ups play their part in stopping litter reaching the ocean, action needs to start on land before waste reaches that point. At TOMRA, we believe that we all need to change our habits and re-frame our thoughts so that we take better care of our environment and turn off the tap to plastic pollution.
“If your kitchen is flooding, cleaning up is not the first thing you do. You stop the flooding at the source by turning off the tap. We need to do the same with plastic pollution,” Kristine explained. “Tackling the problem at an earlier stage, to prevent plastic ending up the ocean in the first place, is essential if we want to make a real impact.”
Small things can make big difference when it comes to reducing pollution from microplastics – thinking twice about the plastics we flush down the toilet, considering the ingredients that are in our toiletries and cleaning products, or using filters to stop microfibers getting into our waste-water.
Crucially, we must stop treating plastic as trash and remember that, in many cases, it can be a vital resource we can reuse and recycle.
For example, more than 1.4 trillion beverage containers are sold every year, 500 billion of which are plastic. Too many needlessly end up as landfill or litter. Plastic bottles and caps were the top two and fives types of litter collected in the International Coastal Cleanup in 2020, which examined more than 8 million pieces of litter from over 50 countries. However, most plastic bottles are made of the valuable and highly recyclable materials PET and HDPE, so it is vital to stop treating them like disposable items.
From trash to treasure
A range of different solutions need to be deployed if we want to turn the tide on plastic pollution and reduce microplastics in the ocean. Deposit return systems (DRSs) are one of the solutions that focus on the source of the plastic problem on land, and this tried-and-tested approach is proven to reduce landfill while allowing bottles and cans to be collected for recycling.
DRSs work by adding a refundable deposit to the price of drink containers at the point of purchase. Giving the empty beverage containers a monetary value incentivizes consumers to return them for recycling.
More than 40 markets across the globe have deposit return systems, with well-designed systems routinely collecting in excess of 90% of deposit containers sold. Governments in a number of new markets are moving to implement their own schemes.
In a DRS, containers are kept separate from other waste, avoiding contamination and ensuring materials maintain their purity and high quality. This means bottles and cans can be recycled into new ones, over and over again – in what’s known as a "closed loop".
TOMRA calls this process Clean Loop Recycling, and the aim is to keep beverage containers in that loop for as long as possible.
One part of a big picture toward combatting microplastics in the ocean
Only 2% of the world’s plastic packaging is recycled in a closed loop, so there is still much to be done when it comes to increasing recycling rates.
There are many solutions to preventing plastic from ending up in the oceans, and deposit return systems have a proven impact when it comes to tackling the problem of beverage container litter. Drink container litter, as a proportion of all litter, is 66% less in regions with a DRS compared to those without. Regions with a meaningful deposit value experience less beverage container litter as a proportion of all litter compared to deposit systems with a low deposit value or no deposit system.
Diverting larger pieces of plastic waste like drink containers from the litter stream means they won’t get the opportunity to degrade or end up reduced to microplastic particles. We all have a part to play – what might feel like a “micro” action from one person can contribute to a big change for the planet.
TOMRA Collection is the world’s leading provider of reverse vending machines for Clean Loop Recycling, to transform society’s habits and keep valuable resources in a continuous loop of use and reuse. Reverse vending machines automate consumer returns of beverage containers for recycling, including in deposit return systems. The company’s solutions collect aluminum, plastic and glass beverage containers to be continually reused and recycled back into new bottles and cans.