Skip to content

Heads up - this blog post is more than 6 months old. Some details may be out of date.

Cutting carbon

Five ways the world is beating plastic pollution

A view of the Ocean Cleanup Machine

The world is acting fast to tackle plastic in our oceans. Here are five causes to champion.

David Attenborough’s latest and greatest documentary - Blue Planet II - made us all sit up and take notice of the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans. While it’s a big issue, there are changes afoot which give us reason for optimism, as well as some causes to champion. We’ve written before about the easy things we can all do to cut down on our personal plastic use. And the global picture is looking brighter too. From the Big Ocean Cleanup to awesome artworks, here are five ways the world is tackling plastic:

1.  Plastic-eating enzymes: science is on the case

Scientific breakthroughs in recycling technology are happening all the time. In 2016 scientists discovered a bacterium living in a Japanese rubbish dump which had evolved to eat plastic. This year the team studying it created a super-efficient enzyme that can break down the PET plastic in drinks bottles within a few days, rather than the centuries it takes in the oceans.

a 3D rendering of the PETase enzyme that can break down PET plastic
3D rendering of the PETase enzyme that breaks down PET plastic

Currently even bottles that can be recycled can only be turned into fibres, which can be used for clothing or carpets. The new enzyme could be a way to recycle clear plastic bottles back into clear plastic. Prof John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, who led the research, said: 'It’s great and a real finding. What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic. It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.'

2. Ocean trainers: big businesses are changing their act

If we’re going to really beat plastic pollution we need buy-in from big businesses - and the signs are that it’s beginning to happen. A host of major companies including McDonalds and Wetherspoons are ditching plastic straws while Heathrow Airport has pledged to recycle all disposable coffee cups by the end of the year.

Adidas trainers made from 95% ocean plastic
Adidas sold more than a million pairs of trainers made from 95% ocean plastic in 2017. Image credit: Adidas

And one of our favourite recent business stories was the news that Adidas has sold over a million pairs of trainers made from recycled ocean plastic.

3. India leads the way: governments are racing to wipe out plastic

Theresa May has said fighting plastic pollution is a government priority, with more measures likely to follow the 5p carrier bag charge and the ban on microbeads used in facial scrubs and toothpaste. But the UK is far from alone in seeing the need for change. Most excitingly, India has pledged to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has committed to join the UN Clean Seas Campaign and establish a national marine litter action project.

People clearing plastic off the beach
Indian PM Narendra Modi has committed to joining the UN Clean Seas Campaign

With 1.4bn people, the world’s fastest-growing economy and the Ganges being one of the most polluting rivers, India’s promise could be a real game-changer for our oceans.

4. Beautiful recycling: ocean plastic can be an art form

Fighting plastic pollution doesn’t have to be dull. This amazing sculpture is the work of Washed Ashore, a non-profit educational project in Oregon:

A sculpture of an octopus made from plastic found in the ocean
Image Credit: Washed Ashore

Washed Ashore raises awareness of plastic pollution by recycling ocean plastic into stunning large-scale artworks. The sculptures can be seen all over the USA and include everything from cute penguins to terrifying sharks. Check out a gallery here.

5. The vision: a young Dutchman plans to clean up the oceans

Six years ago an 18-year old Dutchman named Boyan Slat gave a TED talk proposing a giant Ocean Cleanup Machine - a vast tube that would float on the water and collect floating plastic so it could be easily scooped up and recycled.

Some called him a dreamer - but the idea won $21 million in financial backing and the support of the Dutch government. Slat’s simple tube design has evolved into a more complex series of floats, each up to a mile long and with a ten-foot textile screen hanging beneath. Sealife can swim under or around, but plastic is dragged by surface currents into the screen. A ship will then be sent every few weeks to collect the waste and take it to a recycling centre.

Some engineers inspecting a screen being installed on the Ocean Clean Up system
The screen being installed on the clean up system, the Alameda, April 2018. Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup

A model of the machine recently passed a test run in the Pacific Ocean, and Slat now has the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in his sights. This summer, The Ocean Cleanup will attempt to launch its first cleanup system inside the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world.

The Ocean Cleanup is a big, bold response to a big, bad problem. Hats off, and bon voyage, to Boyan and his team. You can follow their progress here.

Have you been inspired by any plastic-beating projects around the world? Tweet us - we'd love to know more.