Imagine you’ve popped open a bottle of your favorite drink and torn open the wrapper of your favorite snack food. What do you do with the bottle and wrapper when you’re done? For a lot of people around the world, the answer is to put them “in the trash” (or the recycling bin), and eventually someone takes it somewhere—usually to a landfill or recycling facility. In that scenario, trash and plastic never reaches the ocean.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case everywhere; and major cities that lack trash collection and management systems end up becoming a major source of ocean plastic.
The good news is that they can also be a major part of the solution.
Scientists estimate that approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic flows into the ocean annually—the equivalent of about one garbage truck full of plastic dumping into the ocean every minute. Most of it comes from land, and from parts of the world where economic growth has outpaced infrastructure development, like Southeast Asia and Latin America.
Ocean Conservancy’s two seminal reports, Stemming the Tide and The Next Wave, showed that one of the main ways to reduce the flow of ocean plastic is to improve waste collection and recycling systems. And while many cities are taking action, it’s often in isolation.
Cities generally have a leading role in building and running water, sanitation and waste management systems, so they are a natural partner to develop solutions in this area. Cities are also key actors in other areas critical for solving the marine plastic waste problem, including citizen education and awareness.
At the same time, cities have interconnected policy priorities that lead them to prioritize investments in waste management, including public health, economic growth, and job creation. A multi-pronged approach that embeds the reduction of marine plastic waste into other core city priorities, with a range of co-benefits or “resilience dividends,” offers the best chance of sustainable solutions.
Through Urban Ocean, Ocean Conservancy, the Global Resilient Cities Network, The Circulate Initiative, and the Trash Free Seas Alliance® will bring together civil society actors, leading academics, financial institutions, and private sector leaders to develop, share and scale solutions to the ocean plastic problem that cut across silos and achieve multiple benefits. Originally launched in March 2019 at the Economist World Ocean Summit and reimagined in 2020, the platform will allow for faster and more effective development and deployment of solutions, so that policies or systems that work in Seattle or Semarang or Santiago can be shared and adapted quickly elsewhere.
Specific programming will include three primary areas of action:
To demonstrate tangible solutions and progress, Urban Ocean will start with a maximum of 10 pilot cities, bringing in key partners and subject matter experts as appropriate for each city. The program will then be scaled up, adding new elements and learning from the original sites.
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