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COVID is a crisis for our oceans, too

August 24, 2020

By Jacob Batchelor with contribution from Shannon Bouton.

You drink a bottle of water. Use a plastic fork for takeout. Toss a single-use mask. Each of these individual acts are small, seemingly harmless. But taken collectively, it adds up. To a lot. 

“Somewhere around 11 million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean each year,” says Shannon Bouton who leads the Rethinking Recycling initiative as Global Executive Director of Sustainable Communities at McKinsey.org. “That works out to more than a full dump truck of plastic, every minute of every day.” 

Rethinking Recycling, the flagship program of the Firm-founded nonprofit McKinsey.org, is working to address this problem by partnering with everyone from waste workers to multinational companies to increase recycling around the world. McKinsey News spoke to Shannon to learn more—and how the challenge has only increased since the start of the pandemic. 

Jacob: Can you give us a sense of the scale of the plastic problem in our oceans? 

Shannon: Pew recently released a report saying that—without action—the 11 million metric tonnes per year will about triple by 2040. Someone did the math, and that’s equivalent to 110 pounds, or 50 kilograms, of plastic waste per meter of coastline around the world. 

Landfill just outside of Bali’s capital city Denpassar. It’s currently at capacity.

Jacob: I’ll try to imagine that the next time I’m at the beach. 

Shannon: It’s terrible. If we stay on this course, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. You can already see sea life, from birds to whales, washing up on beaches with bellies full of it.  

And unfortunately, all that plastic doesn’t go away. It breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics. And microplastics are everywhere—in the deepest parts of the ocean, in remote deserts, even inside us. 

Jacob: That sounds bad—how much should I be worried?

Shannon: We don’t really know if plastic itself is necessarily harmful. But it does act like a magnet for other toxins in the environment. Things like coloring and additives for texture may also be dangerous, and they also make plastics more difficult to recycle. 

One example is the stuff that makes your water bottle crinkle, which marketers have figured out is a desirable thing for consumers. If we could align on just removing those, plastic would be easier to recycle and more valuable to recyclers. Presumably, less of it would end up in the ocean.  

Jacob: How has the problem of ocean plastics worsened because of the pandemic? 

Shannon: The scary thing is that we don’t really know yet. But medical waste was already a huge problem before the pandemic. Hospitals and other health facilities generate several billion pounds of garbage each year, fueled by a shift toward the use of disposable items to keep sterilization simple.

Anecdotally, we’ve seen photos of disposable masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer bottles left behind in parking lots and streets. A lot of that kind of waste winds up in the sea as it travels down drain pipes and into waterways. The Guardian recently reported that PPE is already washing up in the Mediterranean, where a bystander described there being “more masks than jellyfish.”

But we can fix this. Healthcare companies can reduce the use of disposables and use more recyclable materials, which can decrease costs. We can make more reusable items safe for medical settings. The general public could use reusable masks and be more mindful of where and how they dispose of their PPE waste. 

Jacob: That brings me to my next question—what do we do about ocean plastics overall? 

The Pew study I mentioned earlier has a number of pathways by which we could reduce the amount of plastic going into our ocean by 80 percent in the next 20 years. Things like reducing how much plastic we produce; designing recycling-friendly products; and improving waste collection, among others. 

At McKinsey.org, we focus most on waste collection and recycling through our Rethinking Recycling program.

In Bali, for example, we partnered with community leaders to build a profitable waste management and recycling center in just 4 months. So we’re doing good for the environment, but we’re also doing good for people—helping create dignified, safe jobs for essential waste workers, with access to healthcare, job training, and fair wages. 

Jacob: Why focus on a community-based recycling program, as opposed to ocean cleanup? 

Shannon: First and foremost, we have to reduce, reuse, and recycle if we want to stop the flow of our trash into waterways. Ocean cleanups are simply a band-aid on a systemic problem. That’s why our program is focused on addressing the problem at the source, helping communities to properly manage their waste and get it back into the economy—so that it never ends up on a beach.

Essential waste workers from Buenos Aires’ Barrio 31 who champion recycling in their community as a way to keep their communities clean and safe. Their neighbors participate in the program knowing that recycling delivers the women increased incomes from sales of plastics.

Recycling works most effectively at the community level, where you can educate people, build community pride, and foster a sense of common purpose. People feel responsible for their neighborhood, not necessarily the larger city. So it’s important to start there.

Jacob: How have you been able to do those things in Bali? 

Shannon: We work closely with the community to educate and build the right incentives for people to recycle, including making sure they know it will be effective. For the essential workers, we put a lot of energy into capability-building—our  friends at Aberkyn even volunteered their time to come in and do the kind of leadership training usually reserved for senior clients

Jacob: How can folks get involved?

Shannon: The most immediate thing people can do is take a look at their own community and see how they can increase recycling where they are. Learn the rules of what can and can’t be recycled locally and follow them. Putting the wrong stuff in your recycling bin adds cost and can gum up the machines. What we call “hopeful recycling”—putting everything you think might be recyclable into the bin—is not helpful.

From climate change to COVID-19 and racial equity, we live at a time of real consequence and change. But we all have the ability to make a difference, for our planet and for each other. Each little action you take may feel small. But if everyone is doing it, it adds up.