How the private sector can tackle marine litter

13 February 2020

To date, there has been a focus on the consumer’s role and responsibility in relation to marine litter. But our research has found that this pollution stems from decisions made further up the supply chain, and that the private sector has great potential to help tackle this problem.

Our most recent report on marine litter and the private sector has been published by the Scottish Government. We co-designed the research with Marine Scotland and developed a new approach to exploring the private sector’s role in tackling this environmental issue.

We found that there is plenty of innovation in the private sector and a readiness to respond to the challenge of plastics, single-use and marine litter. However, support is needed for new products to succeed in already competitive markets. Our systematic approach revealed key leverage points and solutions to support the private sector in tackling marine litter.

A holistic approach

Our approach uses lifecycle thinking to map the full value chain for products that are found as marine litter. We identify the main actors at different points in the value chain and build an understanding of their relationship to the product. Pathways to the marine environment are mapped, stemming from the value chain including production, use and end of life. Key decision points are highlighted where the private sector has the greatest opportunity to influence the journey of the product and help tackle marine litter, and the drivers and barriers to do so are explored by engaging these companies.

This systematic approach can reveal new leverage points where small changes can have a big impact on marine litter. The balance of decision making can be tipped in favour of actions to prevent marine litter by removing barriers and supporting positive drivers for the private sector. We can then assess the solutions available to governments, development agencies and other organisations to support the private sector and influence these key decisions.

Common findings

The approach is illustrated below. This shows a generic value chain, tracking the product through production, retail and distribution, product use and end of life. The pathways to the marine environment, key actors and solutions available to tackle marine litter are mapped onto this framework.

Our approach reveals opportunities throughout the supply chain. Brand owners can use circular economy models such as leasing and takeback schemes to ensure their product does not enter the marine environment when it becomes waste. Designing products to reduce waste and optimise waste treatment will also help reduce marine litter. Manufacturers of fishing gear and snack wrappers are already innovating in this space. Retailers can support this by stocking and promoting the right products. In the research, we spoke with UK supermarkets now stocking reusable menstrual cups and looking to tackle other single-use plastics.

We found that many of the products create marine litter whilst in use, e.g. through microplastic emissions, accidental loss and maintenance waste. The private sector can tackle this through sustainable procurement processes and investing in the right products. Avoiding accidental pollution risks is also important, as we learned from the Scottish fishing industry and its efforts to prevent accidental loss of fishing gear. Maintenance is a key marine litter risk for some products, and we found that incorporating a good maintenance service into the procurement process for artificial grass pitch can reduce losses of microplastic crumb used to improve the playing surface for performance and safety.

End of life was typically the area of highest marine litter risk. The waste industry has a role to play here, especially tackling difficult or expensive to recycle waste. Governments have many tools to address this by removing economic incentives to dump waste and introducing positive incentives to manage waste responsibly. Measures available include Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), and governments can also provide support for industry to innovate solutions, adopt circular economy business models, and share best practice.

Our holistic approach enables us to deep dive into complex environmental issues crossing a wide range of stakeholder groups in the public and private sectors and civil society. We found that there are companies in the private sector ready to help tackle marine litter, but they need support to do so. Governments and development agencies are well positioned to support these companies to both tackle marine litter and thrive whilst doing so.

Our approach revealed different leverage points for each of the four marine litter products explored in depth: commercial fishing gear, artificial grass pitch, menstrual products, and crisps, snack and sweet wrappers. This showed that targeted actions are needed to tackle different groups of products.

Read the research on the Scottish Government website: Marine plastic pollution in Scotland: research