SDG 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

Dr Sergio Diez-de-Medina Roldán
Researcher, Universidad Arturo Prat, Chile
Co-Founder, Chimera Innova Group

Globally, we produce 1.3 billion tonnes of waste per year. The daily contribution per person is approximately 1.2 kilograms, which is projected to double by the year 20251. Approximately 11% of this waste is plastic, which frequently ends up in the oceans. Plastic pollution is disastrous for oceanic environments, affecting important species and ecology, and also the coastal economic activities in different parts of the world.

The first target of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) is ‘by 2025, [to] prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities’. Within marine pollution, the plastic waste produced by land-based commerce is considered one of the biggest threats.

The complex hydrocarbons in plastics have an estimated biodegradation time of hundreds of years, which means that finding a solution to deal with the persistent pollution generated since the 20th century is urgent.

This solution can be achieved through sustainable engineering practices; translating the discoveries made by scientific research endeavours from pure knowledge into practical solutions.

Engineering a solution

On the northern coast of Chile, near the Atacama Desert (the driest non-polar desert in the world), the negative impact of plastic pollution is exacerbated by the extreme weather conditions typical of a harsh drought area. These include lack of rainfall, scarcity of clean, fresh water sources and presence of toxic pollutants in the minimal resources that exist. The toxic pollutants and plastics then drain into the coastal areas, with potentially disastrous consequences for oceanic environments.

Based on the needs displayed by local communities in the Tarapacá region of the Atacama Desert, the regional government in partnership with Universidad Arturo Prat is working to address the SDGs on a local scale with an experimental facility conducting research. In April 2016, a serendipitous discovery led to a promising new solution for the problems the region faces with plastic pollution.

One researcher, on using a plastic bag as a quick-fix for a roof leak, discovered several weeks later that it had began to degrade. On closer inspection, bacteria with the capability to degrade plastic and re-integrate it to the soil was identified in the bag.

This knowledge is now being turned into a practical solution to pollution, with a project to construct simple bioreactors and distribute them in the coastal regions most affected by plastic waste2. As well helping clean up oceans and the coast in Chile, we hope that the solution can be easily scaled and applied around the world. What’s more, this engineering solution has the potential to be used on land too, in landfills already containing plastic waste, reducing the degradation time from centuries to weeks. This approach shows the importance of engineering in applying scientific research as practical solutions with immediate impact.

Reducing waste

But, along with discovery and application of these new technological approaches to deal with the present and future issue of plastic waste in our oceans, other measures are also imperative. We need to make the population aware of the risks and detrimental effects that a simple habit can have on the survival of environments vital for the subsistence of our species. No matter how good our engineering solutions are, there will never be a substitute for reducing the problem at the source.

Genuine partnerships between stakeholders, including government entities, the private sector, academic institutions and citizens are needed to foster the sense of a proactive community working together to free the world from longlasting pollutants. Thankfully, many governments have already made a start towards achieving this objective by introducing economic charges on plastic bag usage by consumers, which, in the case of England, has reduced the consumption by 83%3.

The case of Tarapacá in Chile demonstrates that engineering can help deal with plastic pollution, past and present. Nevertheless, these engineering solutions are most powerful in combination with better waste disposal policies, economic measures and alternative packaging options, which together can significantly improve the fate of our coastal and oceanic landscapes.

1What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, The World Bank, April 2016
2Project number FIC 2015 BIP 30434972-0
3 Plastic bag use plummets in England since 5p charge, BBC News