Stopping ocean plastic at the source

A new global alliance supports a community-investment project called Renew Oceans as part of its commitment to reduce plastic waste in the environment.

Photograph by Guiga Pir, Getty Images
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Ten rivers transport more than 90% of river-based plastics to the ocean. The Renew Oceans project aims to divert plastic waste with biofences in rivers across the developing world.
Photograph by Guiga Pir, Getty Images

OCEAN PLASTIC HAS become a defining problem of our time, and a challenge to the world’s brightest thinkers and innovators. With a significant portion of plastic waste entering through rivers, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste is supporting the work of Renew Oceans to address the lack of waste infrastructure in developing regions.

Research published in Environmental Science & Technology in 2017 shows that rivers collectively dump anywhere from a half to three million tons of plastic into the seas every year. According to the data, ten rivers alone carry 93 percent of the river-borne plastics that end up in the ocean. To help prevent this plastic waste from reaching the ocean, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste will sponsor Renew Oceans, a localized engagement and investment project focused on high-leakage rivers. As a Founding Global Oceans Sponsor, the Alliance will contribute its materials and logistics capabilities. The National Geographic Society has also supported the Renew Oceans initiative.

Priyanka Bakaya, from the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, talks about how rivers are key to solving ocean plastics.

Renew Oceans is part of the Renewlogy partnership, a brainchild of Priyanka Bakaya. Growing up in Australia, Bakaya became fascinated by science, chemistry, and the environment. Trips to India as a child convinced her of the need to do something positive for an environment increasingly strained by plastic waste. At Stanford University, she became aware of social entrepreneurship and continued developing her ideas for ending plastic waste in business school at MIT. Ten years ago, at age 25, she launched PK Clean, named for her late mentor in Australia, whose formulas for converting waste into fuel were never published.

Global alliance to take on plastic waste in the environment

How does Renew Oceans plan to address a seemingly insurmountable problem? First, using proprietary “biofence” technology designed by Renewlogy, plastic waste is collected as it flows down rivers and tributaries. ReFences divert the plastic and thus keep if from accumulating and entering the ocean. As envisioned, the program has major side benefits.

The plastic collected across the developing world will be converted into other usable materials, while waste pickers will receive fair compensation directly tied to the value of the plastics collected. In other words, collection leads to conversion, which leads to compensation. Renew Oceans can become a powerful engine for engaging and empowering local communities while cleaning up the world’s trash and creating economic opportunities.

The first Renew Oceans project in partnership with the Alliance will focus on the Ganges River, known locally as the Ganga. The third longest and one of the most important rivers in the world, the Ganga carries 1.2 billion pounds of dumped plastic every year. As the predominant river system of India, the Ganga is a vital resource to its neighboring communities. Renew Oceans is committed to cleaning up this vital waterway by engaging local communities at the source. The people who collect plastic from rivers are often among the most economically disadvantaged members of the community, and so this joint effort has the potential to create great economic opportunity for a variety of individuals.

The Ganga project will begin in 2019. Over time, Renew Oceans intends to expand its focus to all of the ten major rivers shown to carry the vast majority of land-based waste to the ocean. Renew Oceans will prioritize the other rivers and study how best to engage nearby communities. This partnership will showcase both new technology and innovative research initiatives to promote consumer education to audiences around the world.

Renew Oceans also offers technology to convert plastic collected by marine vessels into fuel right on the ship, which is then immediately available for use on-board. As island communities struggle with high energy costs and limited space for landfill plastic, this technology helps solve two problems at once. A local circular solution creates another win-win scenario.

The collaboration of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste with Renew Oceans is an example of how the entire plastics value chain – companies that make, use, sell, process, collect, and recycle plastics – can work together with innovators to test and expand targeted strategies to help end plastic waste in the environment and benefit us all.

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