06.12.2018

Seas littered with plastic waste: short-term action, long-term thinking.

Around the world, plastic waste is polluting seas, creating a global problem. Arno Tomowski, GIZ’s Head of Business Ventures, calls for international cooperation on new solutions.

Mr Tomowski, images of vast floating islands of plastic waste and dead marine creatures have been dominating the media for some time. Why is this issue so relevant right now?

We have been manufacturing and processing plastic on an industrial scale since around the mid-1950s. At that time, the quantity was about 1.5 million tonnes of plastic a year. That figure is now 335 million tonnes. And production worldwide has doubled since the year 2000. Development cooperation has traditionally focused on improving waste disposal at national level or, at best, regional level. Now, however, it is a global problem. Ever larger quantities of plastic are finding their way into the environment and crossing borders, as we can see very clearly from recent images of polluted seas.

Where is the problem most serious?

The biggest challenge is inadequate waste disposal in rapidly growing and densely populated countries that have already achieved a certain degree of prosperity. Good examples are Indonesia, with a population of 250 million and 11,000 islands, or the Philippines, with a population of 100 million. In these countries, waste is usually dumped on the coastline, thrown into canals or disposed of in other ways because there are no alternatives – and little environmental awareness.

How is GIZ proposing to tackle the plastic waste problem?

We have around 30 years of experience in the waste sector. We cooperate with the public sector, the private sector, specialist institutions and informal rubbish collectors, who often make a major contribution to sorting and recycling waste materials. It is important to involve the public and to organise campaigns with local partners to raise awareness of environmentally friendly waste disposal. For example, in 2017, we worked with a local waste campaign in Indonesia to collect rubbish and lay it out across an area roughly the size of one and a half football fields. We collected 15,000 cigarette ends, 12,000 drinking straws and 8,000 pieces of plastic packaging. An initiative of that kind makes a deep impression on people and also attracts media coverage.

We need to think long term: developing functional waste management systems is a complex challenge. We are working towards the vision of a circular economy, which uses natural resources efficiently, returning materials, goods and devices to the economic cycle rather than disposing of them. We also, however, need to think short term: we have to act now to stop plastic finding its way into the sea.