Plastic in the world’s oceans is a ‘growing ecological and human disaster’ which needs an urgent solution, the Prince of Wales said last night, as he launched a prize to find ways to tackle the crisis.
The Prince of Wales’ said plastic had ‘altered the course of human history’ as he joined forces with yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur to offer a multi-million cash sum for ideas which can keep it out of the ocean.
It follows a report by Dame Ellen's foundation which calculated that by 2050 the world’s oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish, by weight.
Launching the prize at the Saatchi Gallery in London last night, the Prince said: “Plastics since their development roughly a century ago have permanently altered the course of human history.
“Because plastics are so durable once they are in the environment that is where they stay, accumulating at an astonishing rate. This strikes me as a tragedy.
“As scientific consensus deepens on the impact of plastic waste on biodiversity, of the food chain, and dare I say it, on human health, it becomes ever more urgent that we find ways to deal with this escalating ecological and human disaster.
“I can only salute those who dedicate themselves to cleaning up the mess we have already made as this is a critical endeavour in mitigating current damage to ocean ecosystems. But unless we can switch off the tap of new waste flooding in, then, on it’s own, no extent of clean-up can provide a sustainable solution.”
The Prince said that people must ‘look towards solutions that are miles from the ocean.’
The New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize invites entrants to come up with new ways to avoid reducing plastic waste, and to make packaging more recyclable.
Most plastic packaging items are used only once before being discarded, often ending up polluting the environment.
For example, Britons use 7.7bn single-use plastic water bottles a year and fewer than half are recycled, meaning that 16 million bottles are binned every day in Britain.
Earlier this week, shocking images emerged showing nearly 18 tonnes of plastic which has washed up on to Henderson Island in the South Pacific, even though it is largely untouched by humans.
Nearly 38m pieces of plastic were estimated to be on Henderson by researchers from the University of Tasmania and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the most ever found in one area.
Researchers found hundreds of crabs living in rubbish such as bottle caps and cosmetics jars, and were told of one living inside a doll’s head.
Dame Ellen said: "After 40 years of effort, globally only 14 per cent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, with one third escaping collection and ending up in the environment.
"If we want to change this, we must fundamentally rethink the way we make and use plastics.
"We need better materials, clever product designs and circular business models. That's why we are launching the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, calling for innovators, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs to help create a plastics system that works."
John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State, who has provided a video address for the launch event, said: “Focusing onocean health, focusing on an initiative to save the oceans, could not be more timely, and it could not be more critical.”
The prize features two elements: a circular design challenge invites applicants to rethink how products can get to the consumer without generating plastic waste like wrappers, straws and coffee cup lids; while the circular materials challenge seeks ways to make all plastic packaging recyclable.
Entrants are competing for hundreds of thousands of pounds in grants and winners will enter a 12-month programme offering access to industry experts, commercial guidance and labs for testing and development.
The first winners will be announced later this year. The Prize is funded by Wendy Schmidt as Lead Philanthropic Partner of the New Plastics Economy initiative.