On the remote Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, researchers recently made a stunning discovery. Despite the fact that the islands are marketed as “Australia’s last unspoilt paradise,” a study in the journal Scientific Reports explained that more than 414 million pieces of plastic—including almost 1 million shoes and 370,000 toothbrushes—were washed up on the islands’ shores.
While the amount of plastic littering the shores of the Coco Islands is stunning, it’s just a “drop in the ocean”—a microcosm of a much larger problem. Markus Eriksen, an ocean scientist, estimates that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating on the surfaces of oceans worldwide. Lots more has fallen underwater. These “microplastics,” many of which are so small they can only be seen by a microscope, drift throughout the world in ocean currents.
Plastic pollution not only creates unsightly heaps of trash on beaches, it harms marine animals. Birds, turtles, and other sea animals get caught in discarded plastic nets as well as pop and beer can rings. Fish eat and are poisoned by small bits of plastic. Marine animals’ digestive systems fill up with plastic causing starvation and death. According to the United Nations, more than 800 species worldwide are affected by ocean debris, and as much as 80 % of that debris is plastic. In turn, people consume the affected fish once caught. Ultimately, we are the consumers of our own discarded ocean plastic.
In addition to plastic trash, marine life gets harmed by products we use on a daily basis such as personal care products. One of the biggest pollution contributors is sunscreen, virtually used by everyone. It is estimated that about 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the world’s coral reef systems year each, harming the sensitive ecosystems. Pollution such as sunscreen thus threatens coral reefs around the world.
A number of steps are being taken to remedy the situation. Movements are afoot to create natural, alternative materials to plastic which are being incorporated into many different products (read our recent post about innovative sustainable materials). Plastic waste that is being harvested from oceans is also being recycled and reused. For example, Adidas sold 1 million pairs of shoes made out of ocean plastic in 2017. Alternative personal care products, safe for the environment, are being sought.
And, importantly, new marine-friendly materials are being developed that reduce pollution and should be safe for ocean species. In some cases, these new materials serve as a food source for marine animals, and thereby help offset the harmful effects of plastic.
Examples of marine-friendly advanced materials include:
As the problem of plastic ocean pollution continues to grow, businesses are catching on and seek to differentiate themselves by incorporating innovative alternative materials into their products and packaging. There’s a business benefit—not merely an altruistic one—driving this trend. According to Nielsen research, 66 % of global consumers, and 73 % of Millenials, say they are willing to pay more for sustainable brands.
The increasing appetite of brands and consumers for more sustainable products offers opportunities for innovative companies to create intellectual property that satisfies market demand such as the design and utility patents mentioned above. Indeed, the problem of ocean pollution may be mitigated in the short-term through clean-up efforts and education around reducing the use of plastics, but the long-term solution requires innovation and advanced materials, which are attractive candidates for intellectual property protection.