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Sustainability Talks

A New Report Looks at the Role of Data in Reducing Ocean Plastics

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The Circulate Initiative (TCI) is an organization that studies, measures and amplifies solutions to address the growing problem of ocean plastics. It has released a new report, “Measuring Our Success: How Better Data Can Help Keep Plastic Out of the Ocean,” that identifies key trends, measurement gaps, and steps to overcome the most pressing barriers.  

As part of its research, TCI reviewed and compiled more than 80 resources that currently exist on the topic of ocean plastics. The group was encouraged by the volume of information and efforts from a wide array of stakeholders but found that “there are often overlaps, which can cause confusion,” as well as critical gaps that must be bridged “in order to gain clarity around ‘what’ and ’how’ to measure.”

The report concludes that the “complex challenge of preventing plastics pollution and leakage into the environment requires dramatic systemic solutions.” And, “with so much at stake, we need effective approaches to measurement now.”

It encourages all actors to work on five key actions:


  • Establish practical standards and accounting methods that increase transparency and traceability around material flows.
  • Make data and decision-making tools locally relevant and accessible for setting baselines and impact targets.
  • Innovate approaches to collecting and sharing data that allow systems actors to develop a shared understanding of the current state and progress being made.
  • Create holistic definitions of success and performance, which measure reductions in plastic waste leaking into the environment and also include impacts on climate, economics, and livelihoods. 
  • Align, integrate, and make widely available the resources and tools that exist.


We recently talked with Susan Ruffo, executive director of TCI, to learn more about the report and get her thoughts on its most important takeaways.

A main focus of the report is the need for cooperation across sectors—building on the momentum from governments, the private sector, civil society, and NGOs. Ruffo points out that the real opportunity lies in looking at “how we can converge the efforts of all these actors…align on common metrics and improve measurement.”

She elaborates that the “government’s role is really to provide the regulation and tax incentives to encourage innovation and change, such as the adoption of recycled materials by businesses. They also have direct access to their citizens, so they can undertake public awareness and education campaigns.” On the other hand, “the private sector has a key role in driving innovation, whether it is directly finding new ways to design recycled packaging or investing in businesses that are innovating in recycling or design. They can also take a leadership role in adopting sustainable products and delivery of their products.” Finally, “environmental organizations are leaders in their ability to advocate for issues, build knowledge and awareness and drive action for change.”

TCI recognizes the difficulties in bringing such diverse stakeholders together; “conveners and matchmakers are needed,” Ruffo says. To that end, The Incubation Network, led by TCI and SecondMuse, has set out to overcome the challenge by “engaging brands, waste management and recycling entrepreneurs, civil society organizations, investors and cities to incubate innovations in different sectors in the system.”

On the topic of the waste industry, Ruffo notes that, “Waste management companies, recycling operators and the informal sector, a critical part of the value chain in South and Southeast Asia, are integral in gathering the data we need to track the collection of waste.” But, she explains that they need to be more involved in the ocean-plastics discussion because the “whole community could benefit greatly from their knowledge and expertise.” 

Previous research has called out Asia’s role in the ocean-plastics problem, but Ruffo emphasizes the global nature of the issue and the fact that “all countries have a role to play.” She points out that some Asian countries are making strides on the issue by adopting ambitious goals and plans, which can serve as models for others. For instance, “Indonesia has committed to reducing marine debris 70% by 2025 and has adopted a national action plan with a focus on investing in waste management.” Ruffo “would love to see the United States and other nations do something similar.”  

TCI is encouraged to see non-profit organizations taking a leading role on ocean-plastics in the U.S. Recently, for instance, “The Recycling Partnership, WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the US Plastic Pact, which will pursue a cross sector, voluntary, national commitment around plastics solutions.”

The ocean-plastics problem—and need for solutions—is perhaps more relevant than ever, during this pandemic season. Ruffo mentions that, in many cities, COVID-19 “has highlighted the need for improvements and innovations in waste management and the circular economy.” But, unfortunately, “the measurement gap means we do not have a baseline to track the extent of the ocean plastic problem, the increase in plastic flowing into the ocean during this period, nor the impact or effectiveness of current solutions.”

When asked if switching from plastics to biodegradable materials would be an easy win for manufacturers and the planet, Ruffo pointed out that, “Consideration of alternative materials is tempting, especially when faced with images of plastics ingested by marine life.” But, “without proper handling and end-of-life facilities and treatment, these materials are still just effectively plastic in the ocean. And in some cases, they can have other unintended consequences, such as increases in GHG emissions, deforestation, or land use.  So we really need to design these solutions with multiple goals, and do careful analyses of their impacts.”

Ultimately, Ruffo says, “We need more consistent and actionable reporting from all players to align, integrate and make available the resources and tools we have so that actors can build on each other’s efforts.” And, TCI hopes to help “accelerate adoption of the best measurement methodologies out there to create one holistic framework.”

View the report here.

And, to hear more from Ruffo, check out this episode of NothingWasted!


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