Impact Blog
The last straw for ocean health

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      By Yijia Chen, ESG Quantitative Research Analyst, Calvert Research and Management

      Washington - As Earth Day approaches, concern about the health of our oceans continues to grow.

      In 2016, a report from the World Economic Forum warned that plastic in the oceans could outweigh fish by 2050. 1 According to an estimate published in the journal Science, nearly 9 million tons (8 million metric tons) of plastic are thrown into the ocean annually.2 Non-biodegradable plastics are choking ocean health, increasing GHG emissions and contributing to climate change.

      In July 2018, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws. Washington, D.C. followed suit in January 2019 and began a ban on plastic straws in restaurants and other service businesses. Outside of the U.S., in 2018, the European Commission announced a Europe-wide strategy to reduce plastic pollution and ensure that all plastic in Europe is recyclable by 2030. On the corporate side, several U.S. fast-food companies, restaurants and airlines are planning to phase out plastic straws and stirrers.

      Calvert Blog 3-18-19

      For most people, eliminating plastic straw usage does not require a drastic change in behavior. Straw bans are an encouraging start, but they are far from enough - straws are the tip of the iceberg, as they compose only 0.025% of the 9 million tons of plastic that flow into the ocean every year. While growing public awareness of the environmental impact of plastic straws has spurred policy and corporate action, much more needs to be done about other forms of plastic pollution and their harmful impacts on ocean health.

      Connection to climate change

      Often overlooked is the fact that conventional plastic is made from fossil fuels, and is a product of the oil and gas industry. In the short-to-medium term, producing more nonbiodegradable plastic products means more energy use and more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Four percent of the world's annual petroleum production is converted directly into making plastics, and another 4% is burned to fuel the process.3 Carbon-pricing proposals could potentially slow plastics production by increasing costs. In the medium-to-long term, as society transitions from fossil fuels toward renewable energy, the plastics industry also needs to transition away from producing single-use plastics.

      A recent academic study unexpectedly discovered that many plastics give off powerful greenhouse gases (methane and ethylene) when exposed to sunlight.4 The most prevalent discarded plastic in the ocean today, low-density polyethylene (used to produce plastic bags), releases gases at the highest rate of all tested plastic types. As more plastic waste covers the ocean, and is exposed to sunlight, more gases are released, exacerbating the greenhouse effect and, thereby, the rate of climate change.

      What investors can do

      Investors can take an active role in protecting our oceans and combating climate change by prioritizing strategies that consider a company's environmental impact. Calvert's ESG investment research process and advocacy efforts consider the environmental impacts of a company's business operations, as well as the company's products and services.

      Bottom line: As the toxic effects of plastics is felt oceanwide and beyond, investors can impact change by pursuing strategies that assess a company's operations and the impact of its products and services on ocean health.