Plastic Oceans UK CEO Jo Ruxton and Technical Director Geoff Brighty attended the conference in San Diego, which brought together academic scientists, NGOs, Government and business to focus on the challenge of waste entering our oceans.

A big difference between the previous conference – held in Honolulu in 2011 – and the 6th meeting has been the significant increase in science evidence, and impact from plastics in the oceans.  This rightly shaped the plenary discussion and presentation sessions throughout the 5-day event.

Even within the last 7 years, we now have significant awareness of the issue of ocean plastics.  Combinations of NGO campaigns through films, social media and grass roots  action, to recent Government policy statements, all driven by science and wider understanding of the significance of the issue to ocean and human health, has transformed the ’seascape’ of ocean pollution.  So the key message is we now have awareness – we need to push into action.

 This key difference between 5th and 6th IMDC marks a key transition to new future in 2018 – and our programmes are aligned to delivering that outcome. But importantly, special guest, musician and ocean activist, Jack Johnson, together with Afroz Shah, the inspirational one-man ocean clean up leader from Mumbai, both made the point that we need to get back in love with the ocean.  Children should be experiencing the beach as a fun and beautiful place – not just as a place where they experience beach clean ups.  With so much emphasis in the media now about plastic in the oceans and on beaches, we are in danger of people switching off because they perceive it to be too difficult to turn around.

Key themes that we think are crucial going forward:

Who is involved – unlike the ‘traditional’ scientific conferences, where the attendees are academic scientists, regulators, business and a few NGOs, this event was completely the opposite – with many NGOs and community activists, scientists and some Governmental representatives, but with few representatives from commercial business.   We believe it is essential that all stakeholders engage with the problem, and importantly the solutions ahead.  American Chemical Council lead for Plastics, Steve Russell, said that the ACC was there to engage and learn as well as inform the attendees on the activities of plastics industry and companies that use plastic.  We need more organisations representing business to play a leading role in this issue, to rework the plastics business and enhance resource efficiency – that way, we will be able to turn the tide on plastic.

Education – the approach taken by many NGOs and indeed Government is about the nature of the problem, and what we should do.  But getting the issue into the classroom is critical so that students learn about the issue whilst supporting their problem solving skills, building the plastics issue into curriculum material – such as maths, or chemistry. We were pleased with the response to the education packs we are developing that align with the taught curriculum and we look forward to working with the Global Ocean Project and World Oceans day 2018.

Science – A lot of information continues to come out through the science.  We saw sessions on ocean debris and plastics distribution in the gyres.  A key point from Dr Erik van Sebile was that the Indian Ocean may not be collecting plastic, but through monitoring of ocean currents, that plastic is rather being distributed to the oceans towards the Antarctic.  Surface plastics might also have a shorter lifespan in the surface layers – we heard research that suggested plastics sink after 2-3 years, consequently being lost to the surface but will accumulate at depth. So what impact does that have, in our ‘deep ocean’ ecosystem?

A range of science critical questions still remains.  We asked the leading scientists whether we have yet reached a tipping point, beyond which this issue will cause irrevocable ecosystem damage. No-one wanted to answer – yet plastic production exceeds 320m Tonnes annually, and 8 million Tonnes is still our best available estimate of what’s ending up in the oceans.  All this points to precautionary action – now. But before we jump to solutions, ways of reusing plastics were also discussed, including ‘plastic roads’. Again, no clear answers were emerging about whether this was a good idea, or not.  It points to the many science gaps that we need to fill.

With the large number of papers emerging it underlines the importance of a place into which this knowledge all needs to be gathered, assessed and the state of science delivered, and the gaps clearly identified. Working with the new Plastics In Society hub, we hope that this will be a reality very soon.  Otherwise, we wont be able to develop the right solutions to this intractable problem.

Policy – examples of different approaches to managing plastics were presented.  All required some level of data and evidence, and highlighted the need to gather marine waste data consistently, so that reliable projections of the waste trends can be made through marine waste networks.  The alarming data trends of the potential growth in plastics and other waste from Africa, according to Tony Ribbink (African Marine Waste Network/Sustainable Seas Trust), shows us that this issue is linked to and is a consequence of economic development. Solid waste management policy and infrastructure is at the heart of solving this issue, and we heard about collaborative initiatives in Indonesia, and India, which are tackling waste at source.

There were underlying questions about how regulation and policy was key to solving the issue, and working with business. The last day session on policy shows that there is a broad range of regulatory tools, such as Extended Producer Responsibility – EPR – which focuses on business recovering the packaging material it puts into the market, that are being used in countries across the EU, Canada and Taiwan.  A key comment was on nurdles escaping from the manufacturers – and then covering beaches in Scotland – this clearly needs to stop. We now plan to initiate a multi-stakeholder leaders group in policy development that looks to the measures that are being taken across the world, show best practices and try to get under the skin of why something works, or doesn’t depending on the local circumstances.