Plastic pollution of the oceans is a global environmental problem.
Because our oceans are downstream from nearly every terrestrial location, they receive most of the plastic waste we generate on land. Sadly, plastic makes up around 70 percent of all litter in the oceans.
A well-known study estimated that approximately 17-47 million tons of the three most common types of plastic entered the Atlantic Ocean in 1950-2015. However, the study only measured the three most common microplastic types in the upper levels of the Ocean. We now know that there is a layer of microplastics, small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long, which brings this figure to closer to 200 million tons.
Such continuous accumulation of plastic contaminants causes interruption to ecosystem structure, functions, and consequently, services and values.
Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fish, and turtles, mistake plastic waste for prey. Most die of starvation as their stomachs fill with plastic debris. Endangered wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals ("Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua," which means "the dog that runs in rough waters") and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are among nearly 800 species that eat and get caught in plastic litter.
In 2020 heads of state from 64 countries signed a Leaders' Pledge for Nature, committing to work together to put ecosystems—land, Ocean, and freshwater—on a path toward sustainability and highlighting ten urgent actions to be taken, which included "eliminating plastic leakage to the ocean by 2050." The most effective way to have less plastic in the Ocean is to use less plastic in the first place.
How Startups Make a Difference
Startups around the world have been contributing to sustainable environmental practices. The NOM, for example, established in 2018, has built natural, vegetarian, biodegradable, and sustainable edible drink straws to replace the usual plastic ones.
As Shashank Gupta, Co-founder & CEO, points out:
"We see sustainability driving food industry decisions in 2021. Sustainability should add value to customers' food decisions and consumption, as we see with plant-based products. However, we need policymakers to promote and enforce adopting sustainable practices."
Undoubtedly, plastic straws are only a tiny fraction of this problem – less than 1 percent. The crucial challenge is to ensure that the bans on using plastic straws (e.g., UK, Australia) are just a first step, which would offer a more crucial shift away from single-use plastics across the value chains of companies and economies around the world.