Can the World Win the War on Plastic?

Can the World Win the War on Plastic?
Trash collectors pick up plastic bottles in New Delhi, India, Sept. 26, 2019 (AP photo by Altaf Qadri).

In September 2018, after years of modeling and development, the Ocean Cleanup project launched System 001, a floating barrier designed to scoop up plastic debris from an area in the Pacific Ocean that, because of prevailing currents, had become a natural repository of ocean-borne plastic waste. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as the area the size of France became known, was first discovered in 1988, but it gained prominence after a public awareness campaign in 2008.

Although System 001 ultimately failed to hold onto the plastic debris it collected, Ocean Cleanup announced late last year that a modified prototype known as System 001/B, launched in June 2019, was successfully retaining the debris it captures. Whether or not it has a decisive impact on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch remains to be seen.

But the project and the attention it received highlight a broader trend that has emerged over the past few years: a recent and dramatic shift in both public opinion and political will with regard to limiting the production and use of plastics. “The plastic backlash: what’s behind our sudden rage—and will it make a difference?” The Guardian asked in November 2018. In June 2019, a BBC headline spoke of a “call to arms to fight the ‘war on plastic,’” while in August, the Times of India ran an explainer titled, “Why the world has declared a war against plastic.”

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