IMarEST: Steering towards an industry level response to marine plastic pollution

“Although existing regulations –particularly MARPOL and the London Convention– explicitly prohibit the dumping of plastic at sea, these frameworks have their limitations” says a report from the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology (IMarEST).

Following a roundtable discussion hosted by the IMarEST together with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), a report has been published on an industry-level response to marine plastic pollution. The report is now available to download and gives an overview of the discussion and recommendations directly from industry on how the IMarEST can support education efforts targeted across marine sectors.

Marine activities, although proportionately lower contributors than other industries, do contribute to marine plastic litter and an estimated 5.2 trillion pieces of plastics are circulating in the oceans. By making their way into marine life, plastics are responsible for the deaths of over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals yearly, amongst a tidal wave of other environmental issues. The report seeks to investigate how the marine industry can reduce its environmental footprint when it comes to ocean plastics.

Given the plethora of environmental risks and consequences for marine services, the report suggests that a robust review of common practices and of the infrastructure to support proper disposal and management of plastics is required – one that considers the needs of different marine sectors and the drivers for plastic generation in order to identify new solutions.

CASE STUDY

Capping crew use of single-use plastic water bottles

An internal investigation carried out by fleet operator participating in the IMarEST roundtable discovered that in one year the crew on its 75 ships threw away more than half a million plastic water bottles. 

Crew preferred bottled water believing it to be safer and healthier than tap water. Such perceptions were fed by both advertising and a distrust of onboard water desalination. These negative attitudes are compounded by the lack of enthusiasm some ship owners show towards mandatory tests of onboard drinking water quality, which crew interpret as another signal not to trust what comes out of the tap.

Deeper cultural values were also implicated. In China and the Philippines drinking tap water is shunned for historical reasons and crew from these countries carry these assumptions onboard. Some shipping companies cater to these preferences by providing bottled water for crew consumption. There are instances too of crew bring their own private supplies.

While a regulatory response could help, it would be complex and take time – possibly years – to implement. It would also be an overreaction when simpler and more expedient options are available. From a practical standpoint, providing reusable water bottles would immediately slash the number of single-use disposable bottles. It would also reduce pressure on onboard waste storage and treatment facilities.

To encourage the use of reusable bottles, shipping companies could make water quality tests a selling point by carrying them out more often and communicating the results more loudly. The message could be reinforced by prominently promoting the environmental benefits of the change.

Several shipping companies have already reported considerable success employing these or similar tactics to cut plastic and other waste. It goes to demonstrate that there are relatively simple actions ship operators can take immediately, and which can make a difference especially when scaled up across a whole fleet.

Download the full report here or explore IMarEST roundtable discussions and other thought leadership events here.