Is plastic pollution akin to the broken windows theory?

April 30, 2015


April 30, 2015

Douglas Woodring

Co-Founder, Managing Director

Mr. Woodring is the Co-Founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a non-profit organization which is focused on bringing innovative solutions, technology, collaborations and policy together to impact positive improvements for the health of the ocean. Two of its global programs were launched at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2010, including the Global Alert platform for reporting trash hotspots around the world. He is a United Nations Environment (UNEP) Climate Hero, and Google Earth Hero for his efforts, and has been on the advisory board of the XPrize, and The Economist’s World Oceans Summit. In 2011, he co-authored the UNEP Yearbook chapter on the danger of plastic in the ocean, and Ocean Recovery Alliance is the first NGO in the world to be working with both UNEP and the World Bank on plastic pollution and ocean issues. He is the founder of the Plasticity Forum which focuses on plastic innovation, design, materials recycling and solutions, without the waste footprint, and is on the Advisory Committee of Wharton’s Institute for Global Environmental Leadership.

Mr. Woodring has worked in Asia for over 20 years, including four years in the asset management industry, where at Merrill Lynch Asset Management Hong Kong in 1998, he proposed the company’s first global environmental technology fund. He has been nominated three times as World Open Water Swimmer of the Year for his innovative contributions to the sport, and was recently named as one of the top 50 “watermen” in the world.

Born in Northern California, Mr. Woodring has a dual master’s degree from The Wharton School (MBA) and Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Environmental Economics. He has BA from the University of California at Berkeley.

Plastic pollution is back on the agenda at this year’s World Ocean Summit event, and rightly so. A report last year commissioned by the UN estimated the annual impact to the ocean from plastic pollution was US$13bn.

This is not going to improve in a hurry. The World Bank expects the planet’s municipal solid waste to nearly double within 15 years, much of which will be in the form of single-use plastic items. 

Population growth and rising consumption are drivers of this. Yet not many countries in the world are well-prepared for this increase in waste, as stresses on land and water quality mean that our old ways of getting rid of the “mess” are by no means infinite.

With these metrics in mind, it is worth considering whether plastic waste—one of the most visible and iconic of our modern consumption patterns—can be the trigger that will drive broader community engagement around environmental issues affecting our oceans and waterways.

The “broken windows” theory for policing high crime neighborhoods offers a good analogy for the potential of tackling plastic waste.  This theory states that maintaining and monitoring our communities, exemplified by fixing all of the broken windows, helps create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness.

Applying the theory to the ocean, a systematic clean-up of plastic waste from rivers and beaches could perhaps create a sense of pride for that area, and its waters, leading to a greater likelihood of people doing the right thing in terms of recycling and waste disposal.

Civic pride and responsibility at the community level could spur action from the companies who are involved in using, selling and distributing plastic in the first place; this could encourage the widespread roll-out of bring-back programs, using reverse supply chains to re-capture some of the material that has been sold; increased use of recycled content in products; and being part of the "design-for-recycling" economy. 

By fixing the “broken window” that is plastic blight we see floating in the sea, not to mention on our streets and in our parks, who knows what chain of events this could set off? Ultimately it could enable us to address much harder environmental issues that seemed out of psychological reach because the low-hanging fruit (recycling and waste management) had not been addressed.

As we look ahead to the World Ocean Summit in June, the intersection of a new found respect for the ‘blue’ portion of our planet, and the realisation that plastic is a long-term survivor in our environment, is creating the perfect storm for innovation and collaboration in the modern, material world. 

Cleaning up plastic waste could act as a very visible—and measurable—marker of our success, as well as a window on future possibilities. 

The 4th annual Plasticity Forum will be held on June 8th and 9th in Cascais, Portugal, just two days after The Economist Events' World Ocean Summit, and as part of Portugal’s Blue Week.  


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU) or any other member of The Economist Group. The Economist Group (including the EIU) cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this article or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the article.

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