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Combating Ocean Plastic: The Role of Data Analytics

The pollution of the ocean with plastics is a notable and concerning issue. Ocean plastic has dire consequences on a plethora of groups and industries. The most worrying of these is the disruption to marine wildlife. 1.1 million seabirds and mammals die every year due to ocean plastic, and marine plants – responsible for releasing 70% of oxygen in circulation on Earth – are being dried out by microplastics. For those still apathetic about the issue, the fact that 1 in 3 fish consumed by humans have plastic in their stomachs may hit a bit closer to home.

Promisingly, plastic pollution seems to be one of the causes which inspires innovation – for example, for the last few years Adidas have teamed with NFP organisation Parley for the Oceans to release lines of clothing which are made largely out of collected ocean plastic.

Following this, clothing brands solely committed to cleaning up the oceans started popping up at an extraordinary rate. However, the solution to pollution of this magnitude is obviously not as simple as just wearing it. From projections in the dataset on plastic pollution presented on Our World in Data (presented by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser), it seems that no amount of plastic salvaging/collection programme will be able to keep up with constant stream of pollution into our oceans and rivers; the number of plastics in the surface oceans is set to triple by 2050.

A particularly interesting trend shown in the dataset studied is the relationship between the amount of mismanaged plastic waste per capita and GDP per capita. Ritchie and Roser found that there is an “inverse-U curve pattern”; the poorest and richest countries have very low quantities of mismanaged waste, whereas those with average incomes – such as Sri Lanka – are the biggest polluters. The conclusion drawn from this is that developing countries are not sufficiently upgrading their waste plastic management systems as they become more industrialised and hence produce more plastic waste. To address the high environmental cost of rapid development, the UN laid out its 17 sustainable development goals.

One of the NFPs working on helping countries and individual firms abide by the sustainable development goals and close the deficit between recycling need and capacity is Oxfordshire-based charity WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme). They also invest and assist in the waste management industry, aiming to increase the efficiency with which plastic waste can be disposed of in a safe and relatively clean way.

So, what is the role of data analysts in aiding NFPs, such as WRAP, to ensure that plastic pollution is minimised? As seen above, the sustainable development goals require a very fine balance between growth and environmental responsibility. Data professionals, such as those volunteering at the GDI, may be able to help construct and deliver models of such sustainable growth – finding the maximum growth which can be attained whilst not violating the firm’s duty to the environment, and also calculating the level of investment into production and waste management.

On a smaller level, data analysis by the GDI could be used to help charities visualise their impact, as well as to identify further targets for investment and improvement. For example, Ritchie and Roser found that some regions – such as coastal areas – have a disproportionately high amount of mismanaged plastic waste. Such analysis has already been put to use to solve a similar problem in Sweden; data was used to rethink Stockholm’s waste collection programme to ensure that waste was managed as efficiently as possible across the city, preventing any of it from ending up in uncontrolled landfills or the ocean.

Plastic pollution truly is one of those issues which people do not grasp the magnitude of until they are presented with the statistics and facts. Hence, social media strategy is also crucial for NFPs. Once again, the GDI can assist with this, performing social media and donor demographic assessments to ensure that nobody remains unaware of the problem.

There is a huge opportunity for data analysis to improve the efficiency of waste management systems, the global plastic trade and even to highlight the long-term benefits of investment in cleaner resources. All the facts show that there has to be some sort of meaningful change – bleeding-heart appeals to reduce waste aren’t enough. The need is there for organisations like the GDI to kickstart a data revolution in global strategy towards sustainable development.

This piece was written by GDI volunteer Adi Lakhani who undertook a 2021 Oxford University Micro-internship Program with the Good Data Institute. Learn more about our community at www.gooddatainstitute.com

About GDI

GDI unlocks the power of data within Australian and NZ not for profits. Our 100+ data analytics volunteers work for companies including Xero, BCG and Google and empower charities to increase efficiency, automate processes and increase impact. GDI volunteer teams have worked with over 30 NFPs, across large and small organisations – including Opportunity International, the NZ Red Cross, The Hunger Project, the NSW Nature Conservation Council, Inclusive America, and Caring Kids.

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