You may have heard about the Versova beach clean-up in India on social media. Volunteers collected a staggering 4,200 tons of trash on a beach. Transformed into a clean strip of coastline, turtles were spotted to hatch their eggs in the sand. A powerful story about the ongoing battle against ‘ocean plastic’.

I immediately wondered where the 4,200 tons of plastic and trash would be taken off to. Realizing that India’s waste management mainly comes down to low-grade separation and recycling on the one hand, and trash dumping on the other. India does not have incinerators, it doesn’t trade waste either. In fact, the country is at the very bottom of global waste trafficking. That’s why it’s not unthinkable that most waste – apart from some limited sorting of recyclable bottles -  ends up back in rivers and ultimately in the ocean via waste dumps. The ocean plastic problem cannot be solved by cleaning up plastic waste. We have to think about how it gets there and come up with a chain-wide approach to avoid things getting worse.

Meanwhile, in Flanders, the magnitude of the problem is becoming clear, with initiatives such as May plastic-free, re-useable plastic cups at music festivals and bottle deposit schemes. For years, we were happy with separate waste collection. Now, it seems that plastic wrapping - that should not have been in PMD-bags at all in the first place - was shipped to China after sorting, or to South-East Asia until recently. Because we do not have any impact on the further waste treatment process, there’s a fair chance that at least part of our plastic waste streams ends up in the ocean.

Ocean plastic is symptomatic of failing waste and materials management systems on a global scale. It’s not just caused by the countries that are visibly affected by it. It’s a complex problem caused by a combination of several factors. Although it may seem tempting to come up with simplistic remedies or use sloganesque language to get people to take action, we should be aware of the fact that complex problems call for complex solutions.

The ban on plastic ‘single use’ products may be viewed in this light. A sustainable alternative to a plastic straw is not a straw. After all, you don’t need straws anyway. If all plastic straws were to be replaced by paper or metal straws, there would no longer be plastic straws in the ocean. However, the overall environmental balance will not necessarily be positive. As a matter of fact, the ban on single use products in itself will not lead to a sustainable solution or to more sustainability.

Stopping ocean plastic pollution should encourage us to work out viable solutions. This will not be an easy task to do. Beyond simplistic remedies there should be materials treatment facilities as well as cooperation across the materials chain to be able to manage them in a sustainable way. Both here and in India, material chains should be closed, waste problems should be tackled close to the source. Otherwise, volunteers will have to continue cleaning up littered beaches year after year so that turtles can hatch their eggs on India’s sandy shores.

This blog post appeared in RecyclePro