Remarks at the Plastic Waste and the Circular Economy Event

Catherine A. Novelli
Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment 
Washington, DC
March 18, 2015

Under Secretary Novelli: Thank you Claudia for that kind introduction. I’d like to begin by thanking His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, the Prince’s Charities International Sustainability Unit, and the Global Ocean Commission for organizing this important event and for their commitment and hard work on global protection of the ocean and their impressive work to protect wildlife. Let me also thank Justin Mundy the ISU Director for his leadership, we appreciated his participation last June in Our Ocean conference.

I want to also commend the British Government for their announcement today, to establish one of the world’s largest marine reserves in the South Pacific Ocean around Pitcairn Islands. This action will protect pristine coral reefs and waters which are teeming with marine life such as sharks, turtles, whales and fish.

As we seek globally to protect important marine ecosystems from over-fishing and damaging extractive uses, we must also focus our protection efforts around the unfortunate affects that plastic waste is having on the global ocean. I’ll talk a little bit more about that problem in a minute. This global problem can also be viewed as an opportunity, -- one where entrepreneurs and innovators can drive us to practical solutions.

As the panels and discussions today will demonstrate, and as some of the industry leaders in the room today have already shown, the kinds of innovations we need can in fact happen – and are already happening.

The good news is that the momentum to combat plastic waste in the marine environment is stronger than ever. But first, let’s talk a little bit about the bad news.

We are all aware of the importance and the benefits of plastics in our daily lives, such as improvements in healthcare and food preservation. Light-weight plastic packaging can even reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

But plastic products are the ultimate irony. Many are created for a single, short-term use and yet these products can live on for centuries. And when not managed properly, plastic waste finds its way into our waterways and ultimately the ocean.

Around the world people might properly discard a water bottle, a bag from a convenience store, or some packaging that came with a new cell phone. But that plastic waste will stay with us for a long time and much of it will end up in the ocean.

Dr. Jenna Jambeck, who is with us today, published a study last month in Science magazine that lays out the magnitude of the problem where she and her colleagues estimated that about 8 million metric tons of plastic waste ended up in the ocean in 2010. Even more alarming is the quantity of plastic expected to increase by the year 2025.

The greatest challenge is that the peak of plastic consumption is still a long way off. Current plastic production is already over 200 million tons each year, but plastic consumption in Asia alone is forecasted to surpass that amount by 2025 – that’s 80% higher than today. In the same year, global consumption will double to 400 million tons.

Once in the ocean, plastic waste can entangle sea creatures, damage habitats like coral reefs, and be eaten by marine animals. It also breaks down into small pieces which can persist for hundreds of years.

It is estimated that, by 2025, there could be one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish in the ocean.

As Secretary Kerry recognized in his ocean conference last June, marine debris is a global problem that needs concerted and immediate action.

To address this problem, we need to focus on three areas: reducing waste generation globally – including re-engineering of packaging; improving national systems for waste management; and encouraging the reuse and recycling of plastics whenever possible.

The circular economy concept, with its “cradle-to-cradle” life-cycle treatment of materials and energy, is a way forward that can potentially revolutionize our ability to minimize waste.

The circular economy concept is largely framed in the context of a developed world view – redesigning both products and business models to increase recycling rates and recapture materials for next-generation use.

But in developing countries, where consumption of consumer goods is growing the fastest, we need to focus first on a key step that too often is missing in the circle – waste management. Collection rates are currently the lowest in the very places where consumption growth rates are highest. This is a classic case where development needs for waste management infrastructure lag behind the consumption rates of citizens.

Dr. Jambeck’s Science article estimated that over half of the plastic in the ocean can be attributed to the lack of adequate waste management in just five countries.

Addressing waste collection in developing countries is necessary to solve the ocean plastic problem. It also happens to be the critical step for enabling circular economy advances in these places as well. This must begin with improving and expanding the waste collection infrastructure. The good news is that plastic debris in the waste stream has value.

To transition to a circular economy, recapture, reuse and transforming waste into next-generation materials or energy are key. Jill Boughton the President of Waste to Worth has some innovative pilot projects in this area which we will hear more about this afternoon. Economically viable solutions – such as waste to energy projects and recycling innovation – hold significant promise.

To demonstrate the possibility, fishing nets – which serve as a constant threat to marine life by “ghost fishing” – can be transformed into new consumer products.

For example, a group of young entrepreneurs working in Chile has started a company called Bureo to make skateboards from discarded and recycled fishing nets. In the United States, fishing nets are being converted to electricity through waste to energy facilities for example run by Covanta Energy.

And for years recycled marine plastic, some also coming from fishing nets, has been used in textile manufacturing for carpet tiles.

In South Africa, as another example, waste to energy projects use waste in landfill sites to add megawatts to the grid and power tens of thousands of local homes while taking economic advantage of the waste supply stream. A U.S. company in the Philippines has four waste to energy pilot projects that convert waste to electricity and even diesel fuel that powers fishing boats.

These examples show that recapture and reuse are possible, and that they also create opportunity. If we can collectively organize around enabling policies, financial support and innovations from governments, industry, investors and development banks and apply solutions to scale, the results could be transformative.

But a circular economy is about more than just waste collection and recycling. It is also about redesign. For this, we have to look further upstream. This means redesigning packaging so that less plastic is initially used or changing the nature of the materials altogether by identifying alternatives to petroleum based plastics.

In 2013, a group of companies including Unilever, Procter and Gamble, Nike and Ford formed the Bioplastics Feedstock Alliance. In partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, the coalition is looking for sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based products by engineering plant-based “plastics” derived from sugarcane, corn, and other agricultural resources.

Already some companies are making their products with some percentage of plant-derived material. For example, Nestle Waters in 2012 launched its Vittel-line water bottles with 30% plant-derived content.

The solutions to this global problem of plastic waste in the ocean will come from innovation, and industry holds the keys to successful innovation. The good news, as shown by these examples, is that this problem has already caught the eye of the private sector. Now we all must cultivate and help greatly expand that interest.

The rest of us – government, civil society, academia, individuals –have our roles, as well.

The United States, through federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, has strong domestic programs to reduce the amount of waste making its way to the marine environment.

Since 2006, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has led national and international efforts to research, prevent, and reduce the impacts of marine debris.

The EPA National Trash Free Waters program is striving to develop a focused set of actions and projects that significantly reduce or even eliminate the volume of trash and litter entering watersheds, aquatic ecosystems, and the marine environment

At the State Department we are using diplomacy to help set the stage for innovation. We are helping to develop UNEP’s Global Partnership on Marine Litter, and we are actively supporting dialogue and actions to reduce marine debris in many other global and regional fora, including the United Nations, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, and for example through the G-7 process we are encouraging partnerships and international development assistance and investments that will combat marine plastic pollution.

We are also working closely with the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance. This is a coalition of industry leaders, some who are here today such as Coca Cola, whose mission is to work toward solutions that will eliminate ocean trash by reducing and, where possible, reinventing products and services that damage ocean wildlife or ecosystems.

There is a greater need than ever for global cooperation to combat marine debris. The problem requires attention at every level and every step, from the development of a comprehensive waste collection infrastructure, to the advanced reengineering and innovation that will constitute a sustainable circular economy model, to choices we all make in our daily lives.

The momentum to combat plastic waste in the ocean is at a level likely never before seen. Now is the time to seize this moment.

I look forward to hearing the insights from panel members, industry leaders, and other guests here today to identify specific actions that can be and need to be taken.

We highlighted the concerns about plastic pollution at Our Ocean Conference last June. We need to carry that momentum and the momentum from meetings like the one forward to the next Our Ocean conference to be hosted by Chile in October so that we can bring concrete actions to the table. I’m happy to say the organizers for that conference are with us today and I’m sure they will be as interested in the outcomes and actions from this meeting as I am.

Thank you again to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, the International Sustainability Unit, and the Global Ocean Commission for hosting this important event.