Ocean plastic pollution - what role can social science play?

29 November 2017

IDS is partnering with the EU, UN, Chatham House and other organisations to host a high level side event on circular economy solutions to tackling ocean plastic pollution, during this year’s United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi (4-6 December). The event will showcase specific examples of collaborative action and policies that aim to reduce plastic waste, address unsustainable consumption and production patterns and redirect investment for a clean, efficient and circular economy. Ahead of the event, I want to highlight the importance of a universal development approach and transformative social science research, as solutions to the ocean plastics problem. 

A large sculpture of a shark made out of plastic waste found in the ocean.

Ocean plastics pollution – not just an environmental issue

Plastics pollution of oceans has emerged as a major global environmental crisis. Between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastics enter the ocean each year. It is devastating for marine ecosystems and the accumulation of microplastics in food chains pose a risk to human health. And the issue is becoming more serious.  By 2050, plastics production is expected to increase to over 2000 tonnes per year, up from 311 million tonnes in 2014.

Plastics end up in the ocean as the result of chains of human activities in different parts of the world. We are all contributing to it. China, Indonesia and the Philippines have been identified as the top three sources of ocean plastics pollution by the Ocean Conservancy. While litter found on the sea floor around the UK has risen 150% in the last year and UK plastic waste drifts to the artic where is has a very damaging impact on one of the most vulnerable ecosystems in the world.

Addressing this problem requires a completely new systemic approach and thinking beyond traditional binaries.  Whether North or South, environmental protection or development, I would argue that adopting a universal development approach, based on the assumption that development challenges are as relevant for the North as for the South, with many common problems, could be a way forward. This approach is particularly relevant against the backdrop of shared and interconnected global challenges such as climate change, resource degradation or, in this case, ocean plastic pollution. Comparing how the plastic waste problem is perceived and sharing ways of dealing with it in different parts of the world can improve national policy design and local implementation.

Circular economy policy solutions and business models

Solving the plastic crisis in our oceans will require nothing less than transforming the existing linear systems of plastic consumption and production and needs to become a priority for the circular economy. Plastics is emerging as one of the major topics of the EU Circular Economy Action Plan and the UK government is now seriously considering introducing a deposit scheme on plastic bottles to increase the currently low rate of recycling.

In terms of business models, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has identified opportunities of $80-120 billion capturing material value of plastics in a New Plastics Economy based on circular economy practices. Other innovative solutions on how to remove plastics from the oceans are based on circular thinking, e.g. the ocean cleaning “Seabins” recently installed in Portsmouth harbour.

Business models and solutions for plastic waste are emerging not only in Europe, but in developing countries too. An example is the social enterprise Ecopost in Nairobi. The company has been pioneering the promotion of circular economy business models in the plastics sector, addressing the challenges of urban waste management and chronic youth unemployment simultaneously. Ecopost recycles waste plastic to manufacture plastic lumber profiles with application in numerous industries from fencing to road signage to outdoor furniture.

A research agenda for tackling ocean plastics pollution

In addition to these initiatives by governments and business, much more needs to happen to solve the issue. There is a strong role for the international science community to solve ocean plastic pollution. Below are three research ideas for a tackling ocean plastics as a universal development issue:  

1. Transdisciplinary approaches of science

Solving the issues will require a truly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary effort by the science community. To date ocean plastics research has been dominated by natural science, documenting the extent and impacts of the problem. While obviously very important, this can only be part of the solution. Many knowledge gaps still need to be closed when it comes to analyzing sources, pathways and causes of leakage, an area where close collaboration with social scientists, economists, anthropologists and artists will be crucial for advancing our understanding and finding solutions. The merger of the International Science Council and the International Social Science Council into a global interdisciplinary research council will provide an opportunity to launch an interdisciplinary research programme on the issue. The Future Earth network could provide a suitable interdisciplinary platform to implement such an agenda.

2. The political economy of plastics waste

Recognising the key issues of the local and national politics around plastics use and pollution, and identify who the drivers and blockers of solutions are, is crucial. If an overall reduction of plastics usage, especially single use items, is an important element for a solutions to ocean plastic pollution, how can the various stakeholders benefitting economically from the global plastics economy, estimated to be worth more than $650 billion by 2020, be convinced to take action? Building social and political consensus around these issues is challenging, but has potentially a very high impact, both in terms of absolute reductions and shaping the new narratives on plastic pollution for change.

3. The role of transformative social science

How can transformative social science help to address? Using social science to understand the root causes of ocean plastic pollution and behaviour change is key to solving ocean plastic pollution. Through co-construction approaches, transformative science can identify social norms, cultural aspects, collective behaviour and political economy issues, which influence the way plastics are being used and disposed of. It can build alliances to implement people-centred policy approaches and solutions that address the norms and behaviours of municipal governments, communities, consumers and private sector stakeholders. Solutions need to be rooted in local practice and informed by the political economy of these environments, and able to be scaled up rapidly.

Although effective solutions will be context specific, they are also likely to share important common features.  Transformative science has tools to develop mechanisms to learn from these, and to disseminate this learning so that local solutions can be adapted, scaled up and operationalised. Actively involving stakeholders, combining research, capacity building, business innovation, policy change and communications is crucial – it is this combination, delivered together, that will be transformative.

Photo credit: Flickr / Washedashore.org (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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