Conference at La REcyclerie: protecting the oceans through the circular economy

Posted on 20 June 2017.

Plastic is the primary source of ocean pollution. Through recycling and re-use, the circular economy tackles the problem upstream by reducing the production of waste.

80% of marine pollution comes from the land - two thirds is plastic.

Throughout the year the Veolia Foundation organizes "2C" conferences at La REcyclerie. Mainly aimed at young people, the goal is to help them understand the most important circular economy related challenges. With the mediation of the CliMates youth network, each conference addresses a different theme on which three experts are invited to speak. The June conference brought together a wide audience on the topic of ocean preservation.

A blue planet... in danger

"When French astronaut Thomas Pesquet arrived at the international space station and looked at the Earth, he saw a blue planet" begins the oceanographer Marie-Christine Huau. The ocean is the largest ecosystem on our planet. It provides 50% of our oxygen... and 80% of its pollution comes from the land – and two thirds it is plastic.

Thrown on the street or in the countryside, our waste is carried away by rain into rivers which then take it to the sea. The issue being that in the natural environment a piece of plastic will take 500 years to degrade.

Driven by the gyres – ocean eddies formed by the currents and the rotation of the Earth - the plastic collects to form gigantic islands of floating waste. The best known is in the north of the Pacific Ocean. This "7th continent", discovered by chance by the navigator Charles Moore in 1997, is more than 6 times the size of France. There are 4 others in the world. They are predicted to continue growing so that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean...

The first victim of this vortex of waste is of course marine biodiversity. The best known example is that of sea turtles which choke on plastic bags because they confuse them with the jellyfish that make up part of their diet.

But that's not all. The ocean is the main regulator of our climate. If it is too polluted, it will not be able to absorb the effects of climate change as it does today. It is therefore urgent to protect our planet’s lung... and find a solution to the blight of plastic pollution.

The circular economy reduces the amount of plastic

There are a number of solutions.

Clearly, the oceans have to be cleaned up. This is one of the missions of two emblematic projects: Ocean CleanUp launched by the young Dutchman Boyan Slat and Sea Cleaners, the association set up by the French navigator Yvan Bourgnon. In a few months’ time Sea Cleaners’ new generation boat, designed to collect waste, will set sail.

But the main challenge is tackling the root of the problem. We need to considerably reduce the amount of plastic that arrives in the ocean. "We must review our modes of production and consumption at all levels of society," says Emmanuelle Moesch from the Institut de l'Économie Circulaire. European and world regulations are gradually moving in this direction. Three levels are being explored: ban, reuse and recycle.

Ban: Some countries have already banned the use of disposable plastic bags. This is the case in France as well as in Morocco and Mali. And the city of San Francisco has gone even further by banning all polystyrene packaging. France has set a target of halving the amount of non-recyclable manufactured products put on the market by 2020.

Re-use: The European Union plans to re-use 10% of its plastic packaging by 2030. In developing countries, where collection systems are less organized, initiatives are emerging that give a second life to waste plastic. For example, Liter of light. Working in 20 countries this NGO recovers plastic bottles and turns them into solar energy lamps - upcycled bottles bringing light into areas where people don’t have access to electricity.

Recycling: Recycling is at the heart of the circular economy: it gives waste value, reusing it as a raw material. France aims to recycle 65% of its non-hazardous waste by 2025. In Nigeria, the company Chanja Datti has made waste collection a real lever for economic development. Selling waste generates revenue, but the development of this sector has also created many jobs.

A concrete example: the start-up Yoyo encourages plastic recycling

Founded in 2016, the French start-up Yoyo has set itself the task of doubling the plastic recycling rate in cities. If more waste plastic is collected, less of it will end up in the sea...

"Behind voting, French people consider waste sorting to be the most important civil action. But paradoxically in France the place where the most plastic is consumed - in the cities – collects the least,” explains Gabrielle de Perthuis, coordinator of the launch of Yoyo. The problem is unclear sorting instructions, unpleasant garbage collection areas, overflowing bins, etc. As a result, collection volumes have stayed the same for years.

To solve the problem, Yoyo offers a reward system to encourage people to become committed "sorters". In each neighborhood, representatives distribute numbered sorting bags and advice on selecting the right waste to those who request it. In exchange for each filled bag, the sorter receives points and in exchanges gets discounts, vouchers, etc., which drives a high quality local recycling system.

Resources are too valuable to be used only once. Through reuse or recycling, the circular economy is an effective way of giving a second life to plastic waste. Yoyo reminds us of one important thing: mobilizing people is a vital part of preventing plastic waste ending its days following the ocean currents.

Find out more:

- Boyan Slat, 20: his plan to save the oceans
- When sorting your waste wins you things!