Solving the ocean plastics blight – a systems approach

A storm of heightened awareness and indignation around pervasive plastic pollution has swelled over the past month. With recent mass coverage, namely Blue Planet II and Sky's A Plastic Ocean, the drive to save our oceans from a toxic, chemical-infused future has never been more potent.

Solving the ocean plastics blight – a systems approach

But the issue of plastic polluting our natural environment is not a new one. In fact, it has been decades in the making as our addiction to convenient, cheap plastic has been hard-wired into our consumption.  

The shocking effects of plastic on wildlife were painfully illustrated by David Attenborough in Blue Planet II: albatross chicks pierced internally by tooth-picks, turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, whale calves killed with milk poisoned by plastic toxins in the food chain. And it’s not just our natural habitats beset by plastic pollution – the effects strike much closer to home. Toxins from micro-plastics and micro-fibres are present in our blood and tissue, ingested through our food and water and, scientists fear, even through the air we breathe.

The crescendo of noise from the media, campaigns, businesses and governments shows that individual efforts are being made across the board. Sky Ocean Rescue is among the leaders in the business sector through their commitment to eliminate all single-use plastic from the company’s operations, products and supply chain by 2020. They have also set up an innovation fund to invest in new ideas, whilst forging a partnership with WWF to support Marine Protected Areas. Just last month 193 countries pledged to tackle ocean plastic, and the UN announced “We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse.” Yet for every media-minute of rhetoric and plans, the plastic problem is only intensifying, with scientific journals reporting that “the flux of plastics into the oceans could increase by an order of magnitude in the next decade.” So what action is needed to make plastic pollution a horror of the past alone? A systems approach.

To restore oceans to a plastic-free, thriving state, solutions must be collaborative and scalable. Information and data need to be shared, and action consolidated across the whole marine sector. In 2014, taking this approach, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK brought together a group of nine organisations, including Forum for the Future, in the Marine CoLAB, with the aim of accelerating progress towards an ocean friendly society by collaborating across the whole system and embedding lasting change.

The #OneLess campaign is one of the experiments catalysed by the Marine CoLAB, with the goal of reducing the consumption of single-use plastic water bottles in London to unlock a refill revolution. In the UK, 35 million single-use plastic bottles are used every day, and 16 million of these are not recycled.

The #OneLess campaign, supported by its four partners, ZSL, Comms Inc, Thames Estuary Partnership and Forum for the Future, intervenes at leverage points across London’s social fabric to find new solutions and align stakeholders so that action is coordinated across the whole system. These include retailers, large and small businesses (including drinking fountain and refillable bottle providers), infrastructure projects, venues and campuses. #OneLess fosters change by taking a systems perspective, using a collaborative approach and creating a model which can be replicated and scaled-up to create change in other locations.

The key to its success is triggering and appealing to people’s values. This is what we call a values-based approach, and it plays a fundamental role in driving deeper systemic change and motivating faster action in individual and organisations. The Marine CoLAB seeks to communicate the value of the ocean and improve ocean protection by tapping into people’s deep motivational drivers. By leveraging what individuals value and care about, change can be motivated and sustained.

It’s time to come together, at a critical time and before it’s too late, and drive change by leveraging the whole system to solve a complex global challenge. If any London based stakeholders are interested in joining the #Oneless campaign, we are recruiting new members in January 2018.

Dr Anna Birney is director of learning and community at Forum for the Future

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