“We thought the oceans were too big to fail, but now we know”
Oceans produce over half of all the oxygen we breathe, and absorb more than 25% of all atmospheric CO2. And though they cover about 71% of the earth’s surface, we’ve only explored less than 5%. And while most of us are only barely aware of the enormity and scale of the waters we live surrounded by, we had the opportunity to speak to someone who has spent the past 50 years in the world’s oceans – Dr. Sylvia Earle. We met Dr. Earle late last year when she was the keynote speaker at the NUS SDG Conference, and she shared with us her insights the waters we live surrounded by.
Being one of the earliest explorers of the oceans and having led more than a hundred expeditions logging over 7,000 hours underwater, she spoke to me about the changes she’s seen first hand as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence – that the biggest problems facing the oceans today are “what we are putting into the oceans, and what we are taking out of the oceans.” as can be seen from the 8 million tons of plastic that go into the oceans each year, and the how in the short span of 40 years, half of all marine life has been lost.
Impact on businesses
With 90% of all goods worldwide being shipped through oceans, most companies’ continued existence is tied to our waters. In addition to this, the oceans have an estimated value of $24 trillion – the sheer economic benefit we gain from them is reason enough to tidy up our act, starting with plastic waste.
“Plastics, especially single-use throw away plastics just doesn’t make any sense,” laments Earle. It is one of the reasons why an equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the oceans every minute. The worst part is, Asia is the major culprit contributing to plastic waste in the oceans – with 60% of ocean plastic waste coming from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. This is particularly problematic because Asia has always been seen as a profitable hub for many businesses all around the world.
Innovative Solutions that Exist Today
Thankfully, there are solutions that exist today to begin addressing these challenges. Some of you may have already watched the TED talk by by Boyan Slat, founder of The Ocean Cleanup – the “world’s first feasible concept to clean the oceans of plastic.” Making use of the oceans’ natural currents, floating plastic is caught through solid screens and a V-shaped array, that filters the plastic waste, while allowing marine life to pass through without getting caught.
Cleaning up the oceans is the damage control, but preventive measures must also be taken. As Earle says, “there are things that can be done, alternatives to packaging that are more efficient, cost effective and environmentally sound ways for shipping goods from one place to another; we don’t have to wrap them in the ways that they have been before.”
Founded in 2010, Mango Materials, converts waste gases from landfills into biodegradable plastics. Apart from helping reduce the amount of plastics that end up in oceans, this also provides a responsible way to use the waste methane that’s generated in landfills across the world.
With regards to fishing, a startup that is working on preventive measures is Global Fishing Watch. Offering the first global view of commercial fishing activity, anyone can track what commercial fishing vessels are doing for free. This means that problems such as illegal fishing and habitat destruction can be identified at an early stage.
Embracing the Circular Economy
Ultimately, the only way to benefit from our oceans sustainably is to embrace the circular economy. As Ashwin summarises below, apart from solving the issues of waste, it can also provide employment and empower the millions of people working in the informal sector around the world.
Earle leaves us and businesses with one piece of advice. “Look in the mirror, what are you doing? What are the sources of the problems? And go back to the source, and then do what you can, armed with knowledge, and fix it.”
This article is part of our monthly series of insights to help business leaders discover business value through a social and environmental purpose.
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