Although marine plastic has become a prominent environmental issue in recent years, plastic is too valuable a resource to ever truly go away, so effectively managing such waste and placing it in a circular economy system would be the most efficient way to solve the issue, experts at a Tokyo seminar said last week.

Some panelists proposed solutions such as utilizing cutting-edge biodegradable polymer and the implementation of new international standards for plastic biodegradability.

Foreign dignitaries, government ministry officials, businesses and members of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization came together at the Japan-UNIDO Multi-stakeholder Cooperation Dialogue to discuss solutions to the marine plastic issue.

“At UNIDO we believe that the issue of marine plastics is caused primarily by a lack of proper treatment of waste. Promoting good circular economy … would help to reduce plastic leakage to the environment as a whole and the marine environment specifically,” said UNIDO Deputy Director General Hiroshi Kuniyoshi at his opening keynote address.

Eight million tons of plastic litter reach the ocean every year, leaving a devastating effect on marine life, conservation efforts and the environment.

Yet only 9 percent of plastic waste ever produced have been recycled, while another 12 percent have been incinerated, according to a working paper released by UNIDO in April. The rest, which almost amounts to 80 percent, ended up in either the natural environment or in a landfill.

“Plastic is a very valuable material, and there are so many advantages in using it. … I think it’s best to think about how we can really make use of the characteristics of plastic, while also finding ways to manage it and ensure that it doesn’t damage the environment,” explained Kuniyoshi in an interview with The Japan Times.

A circular economy aims to create a closed-loop system where resources are reused over its life cycle, ultimately reducing resource input as well as waste output over the economic cycle. This is in contrast to a linear economy, where resources are taken, used once and then thrown away.

“In principle everyone can win, and with circular economy, we are as close as possible to a formula where you can get companies to do the right thing for the environment and earn money and therefore do it voluntarily,” Stephans Sicars, director of the Department of Environment at UNIDO, told The Japan Times after the event.

Sicars added that with a circular economy, the power of economics would guide people’s interests toward sustainable choices even in areas where enforcement isn’t as strong. As an example, he mentioned that plastic bags may be banned in an area but the ban itself fails to make a difference because of the lack of enforcement.

“Consequently, when it becomes the self-interest of people, to work on reducing waste and reducing materials used, and repairing more … one reduces environmental impact even where regulation is maybe not so strong. And this is where we come from.”

Some participants at the seminar were already making headway in inching closer to a circular economy.

Kaneka Co. showed off its polymer research, which could replace conventional PET bottles with a product that is environmentally friendly and would be biodegradable both on land and in the ocean.

Masao Kunioka, a councilor at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, also talked of creating new international industry standards and requirements for the biodegradability of plastics.

“In our opinion, if you don’t change how products are being designed and used, then the plastic litter problem will not be resolved,” but that also leaves space for new, green businesses to come into existence too, explained Sicars in his address at the seminar.

“To unleash the power of economics … and assign new responsibility to those using and designing plastic products is key to force the industry to change,” he added.

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