Data Lights the Way to Cleaner Oceans – SecondMuse

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    Emerging data on the origins of ocean plastic pollution have offered clear starting points for action





    In some parts of the world, the sight of plastic bottles and bags washed up on beaches or bobbing in and out with the tide is a ubiquitous reminder of the impact humans have on our planet.

    While researchers, environmental innovators and others interested in the health of our waterways have focused for decades on the scourge of ocean trash, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that new data shed light on the extent of the problem, and highlighted the most promising places for improvement.

    Landmark research published in the journal, Science, in 2015 found that people contributed an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste to the ocean in 2010.  It also found that just a handful of countries in South and Southeast Asia were responsible for more than 60% of plastic flowing into the ocean each year, mainly as a result of waste mismanagement.

    In many plastic leakage hotspots, waste management systems had not adapted to absorb the growing use of single-use plastics and other types of waste that accumulate as a population’s income rises. The glut of garbage had created new, but dangerous opportunities for those at the margins of societies: picking trash, at risk to their health and safety, to sell it to recyclers for meager pay.

    Grim as the relatively new insights may seem, they have offered a clear starting point for action: the optimization of land-based plastic waste management in key areas of South and Southeast Asia. Improving waste management and recycling infrastructure in this region has the potential to reduce plastic leakage by 45% by 2025, according to research from the Ocean Conservancy.

    And if it is done in an inclusive manner (one that considers the needs and includes the input of everyone from government officials to the men and women who earn their income in the informal recycling economy) waste management innovation can improve both ocean health and local economies for everyone.

    As we have witnessed time and time again at SecondMuse, scaling solutions to problems like the ocean trash dilemma takes serious teamwork. That’s why The Incubation Network (TIN), our collaboration with The Circulate Initiative to reduce trash in our oceans, has been creating a collective of  innovators, investors, civil society organizations, and government leaders across five key South and Southeast Asian countries. Collaboratively, the network has been working to design and deliver programs that drive investment, innovation, and partnerships for inclusive and gender-responsive waste management and circular economy solutions.

    Scaling solutions also requires data. Just as the data from the landmark Science research helped orient the work of so many people and groups dedicated to eradicating ocean plastic, more granular data will help problem-solvers further hone their work in South and Southeast Asia.

    The Incubation Network has contributed to this endeavor as well through its Plastic Data Challenge, a mammoth effort in innovation, collaboration, and learning that recently came to a close. The challenge aimed to support, scale and pilot leading innovations from around the world that use data to prevent flow of plastic into our environment. It also has been helping to fill a crucial information gap.

    Data on plastic production and waste management across South and Southeast Asia is missing, inconsistent, or unreliable because the region’s complex plastics value chains are fragmented and reliant on the informal economy. The result is limited visibility and transparency as well as an inability to effectively track, monitor, forecast, or optimize material flows and reduce ocean leakage.

    The Challenge, though, built a diverse, collaborative global community around plastics data, increased awareness of the data gap in waste management and recycling in Asia and available solutions to address these challenges. And crucially, it supported the development and implementation of 10 innovative pilots for data-driven solutions across the region.

    Though the challenge has come to a close, its life continues through the networks it built, the innovations it fostered and the data it uncovered, which will orient the work of even more people committed to clean oceans and economies that offer safe, dignified, sustainable work for everyone.