We have observed the same situation since 2003: from ocean to ocean and expedition to expedition, plastic is everywhere at sea. Estimates indicate that if we continue at the current rate, in 20 years we will have doubled the quantity of plastic thrown into the sea. In recent years, certain countries, communities, decision makers and industrialists have taken action towards the inevitable transition to sustainability. Initiatives, innovations and commitments are multiplying, laws are evolving. Obstacles remain, power struggles prevail. According to the Tara Expeditions Foundation what are the levers for change? Interview with Romain Troublé, executive director of the Tara Foundation
Today the problem of plastics at sea is multiple, ranging from large pieces of trash to invisible micro-waste. The impacts are very diverse and the Tara Foundation contributes to understanding these impacts on the marine ecosystem. What are the solutions? How are we doing according to you?
We are moving forward, but not fast enough of course. Consciences are changing as the production of plastic increases. New generations enter the game, laws are passed, especially at the European level. The European Single-Use Directive is gaining momentum. Some countries and cities exist without disposable plastic, San Francisco for example. New bio-sourced materials are emerging.
For 20 years, false solutions (but reassuring for the consumer) such as “oxo-fragmentable” or “biodegradable” bags have emerged. In reality, this packaging is degradable only in rare industrial composters, and afterwards at sea. In short, everything remains to be invented!
Faced with the acceleration of solutions such as the new bio-sourced materials, or the partially compostable ones generated by bacteria, scientific expertise is more than ever necessary. Science makes it possible to identify the impact of new materials on biodiversity, on our health, and to distinguish between good and false solutions. This is what we want to bring to the ecological transition, using our collective expertise built upon basic research.
Romain Troublé, executive director of the Tara Expeditions Foundation © Arnaud Bouissou / TERRA
What do you think are the main levers of change to fight against plastics at sea?
For us sailors it’s obvious that plastic is scattered everywhere in tiny fragments, from the Arctic to Antarctica. We must stop this “hemorrhage” by all means, and find the solution on land. This implies profound changes in our mode of production and consumption: acting along the chain, not just at the ultimate stage of the citizen sorting and recycling by communities. These transitions are very heavy and must not rely solely on the consumer.
From plastics to mass distribution to recycling, the private sector has a strong responsibility and a very important leverage effect. This is the meaning of the National Pact on Packaging that has just been signed between large companies, the French government and civil society. This Pact is a voluntary initiative which aims to accelerate the transition of the private sector*. It will be followed by a committee including the state, NGOs and researchers.
Stopping the hemorrhage by focusing on recycling would be a very limited victory. The first stage of the transition is the reduction of plastics, even before the eco-design of new materials, which should also be promoted. The 5 Rs must prevail: Reduce / Refuse / Reuse / Repair / Recycle). Bringing together producers, distributors, recyclers, communities, researchers and consumers around this challenge is essential and urgent.
© Surfrider Foundation Europe
Besides research, what does Tara organize on the theme of plastic pollution?
The Tara Mediterranean expedition in 2014 was entirely devoted to the issue of plastic pollution at sea. We made about 20 stopovers, met people and associations, from France to Lebanon, from Albania to Tunisia. During these multiple exchanges and round tables, we realized the limits that arise if we work only with NGOs and environmentalists. We must open up a dialogue with the political sphere and private sector. In 2015, with the “Plastics at Sea” conference, we set up the Beyond Plastic Med initiative, in collaboration with the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Surfrider Foundation Europe, and the Mava Foundation. Today this initiative has already supported more than 25 projects led by local actors around the Mediterranean.
The transition will not only come from these announcements or pacts, which are certainly good starters. There is such a globalization of production (plastics, petrochemicals, etc.) that the solution can only be global. The role of the United Nations and the nation states is to put in place a common framework for a transition to a more circular economy for industry to develop recycling streams, and to accelerate eco-design.
On board, scientists separate plastic waste from marine organisms collected in a seawater sample © Samuel Bollendorff / Tara Expeditions Foundation
How does Tara participate in this with its research program?
What we do at sea — observe, qualify, and then analyze with our partner laboratories — should make it possible to understand the interactions between living organisms, the different plastics and their potentially eco-toxic components. It’s important to remember that there are many types of plastic, that chemical additives associated with each plastic product are very diverse, complex and very often secret. Understanding the impact of these different pollutants on marine organisms is a real challenge. Today we are developing this expertise, particularly with the CNRS. Confronting our knowledge with the constraints of the industrial world and its multiple standards will make it all the more relevant.
We will soon return to sea and continue our research — to develop an indicator of marine pollution in Europe, to qualify this “hemorrhage” by finding the sources of pollution via the big rivers. Tara’s departure is scheduled for June. Sailing around Europe for 6 months, we will try to identify in collaboration with the CNRS and with the support of our donors, partners and patrons, the links between land and sea. For the first time, Tara will study the mouths of 12 of the 15 main rivers of Europe, with the help of ecotoxicologists, marine biologists, oceanographers, molecular biologists. The investigation will start with the Thames, before making a stop in London!
(1) Commitments included in the pact:
1. Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging by 2025
2. Accelerate efforts on eco-design and implement innovative and sustainable solutions
3. Achieve collectively that 60% of plastic packaging be recycled by 2022
4. Incorporate an average of 30% recycled plastic into packaging by 2025
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