Navigating the ocean plastics current

Written by: Julian Tranter | Published:
Julian Tranter, MD of Kier Environmental Services

It was along the UK coastline in 1998 that Julian Tranter, MD of Kier Environmental Services, first encountered the pollution caused by marine plastic when he was conducting research for a UK utility company. Here, he looks at the dangers presented by the amount of waste plastics in the ocean, the effect it's having on marine wildlife and how well-known brands are responding.

Today it is the hot sustainability topic that everyone is talking about - from celebrities and ex-news readers to product and sportswear manufacturers. And that’s not including all the academics who have been highlighting the problem for years!

If you hadn’t realised why this topic is generating so many column inches, consider this: according to the World Economic Forum, by 2050 the plastic in the sea will outweigh the fish.

We are all probably aware of sinks (there’s one in the Thames estuary where waste collects on the sea floor) and floating gyres of bottles, bags and six pack yokes, but we now also now have to worry about microfibres!

According to Patagonia, plastic microfibres, many generated by washing clothes, make up 85% of plastic pollution on the shoreline. These microfibres accumulate in the guts of fish and invertebrates, changing their behaviour, stunting their growth and sending toxins up the food chain.

The hunt for solutions to this market problem has been underway for a decade or more. There is an abundance of great ideas in play, most focused on tackling the waste in situ. The first example I saw was in 2015 when Interface launched their ‘Net Effect’ marine plastic carpet tile.

More recently Dell created packaging trays with a 25% recycled ocean plastic content as part of their goal to make 100% sustainable packaging by 2020. Even sportswear manufacturer Adidas, has joined the fray with ocean-plastics-based shoes and, of all ironies, a swimwear range.

This is great; it raises the profile of the issue and there is plenty of plastic waste to recover. But downstream solutions do not solve the problem; they do not recover microfibres, and they do not stop plastics from entering the marine environment. We need action to stop the pollution arising. I believe a more radical rethink is required. One that views plastics not as something to be disposed of indiscriminately, but one where it is a material that can be converted to a product.

At Kier Environmental we think differently. We see great potential in re-using and re-manufacturing the materials we collect from our waste business into products that can be used by other businesses in the Kier Group. We convert plastic wastes into construction products and invest in new applications for these materials.

And after all this time, I am still involved with dealing with pollution and the marine plastics on our beaches, as Kier street cleansing businesses cover beach cleansing operations around UK coast line.

I would welcome other thoughts and comments on the subject, or get in touch with me directly if you’d like to know more about what we are doing as a business to create sustainable solutions for waste.

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