A global tax on plastic to fund private ocean clean-up initiatives is probably the only way to end the horrors of plastic in our seas and seafood. Let me explain.

As the Covid pandemic ends and life returns to normal – our seas are still suffering from long Covid. It is a disgrace the amount of plastic and now personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks that have ended up in our seas. Just 1000 river systems contribute 80% of the plastic in our oceans. This adds to a pollution problem that has been allowed to become catastrophic, because it is largely out of sight and gets intermittent press coverage.

Plastic trash accumulates and is concentrated by circular currents or ‘gyres’ in five main areas or of our oceans. The largest is the great pacific ‘garbage patch’ between Hawaii and California discovered in 1997 by yachtsman Charles Moore. Some of these are as large as a US state and combined cover millions of square kilometers.

Plastics left in the sea break down into ever small particles called microplastics, and these enter the human food chain through our wild caught fish. Ocean Conservancy and other studies estimate that up to 35% of all fish have eaten some plastic. Plastic is even present in farmed fish, entering the food chain through the wild caught fishmeal they are fed. We are unlikely to stop much of the plastic that is already in the sea entering into our food chain, what we can do is stop making the problem worse. When you are in a hole, stop digging.

There are some great initiatives making desirable products out of ocean plastic from cool designer sunglasses to adidas trainers and Patagonia jackets. Their impact on ocean plastic will however always be very limited.

The Ocean Cleanup launched by Dutch engineer and campaigner, Boyan Slat, has started tackling the problem. By fishing the oceans for plastic, recycling where possible or burning in waste-to-energy plants schemes like his are starting to make a difference. Such initiatives could have a material impact if scaled up dramatically, but who would pay?

Governments themselves will not deliver, but can enable, legislate and help regulate functioning private markets. It is entrepreneurs and companies that make change happen. Such initiatives should be driven by private companies and subsidised by a global tax on new plastic and disposable PPE producers. Like the much-needed carbon tax for which I have long argued, the external costs would then be accounted for by the companies that produce the waste.

We need to keep pushing our governments to see the change that is needed.

Let’s get busy repairing the future.