The circular economy at sea: part 2
Conservation and restoration efforts alone – crucial though they are – are not enough to protect...
Co-written from two small seaside villages in the United Kingdom – on the easternmost tip of the Isle of Wight and at the edge of Belfast Lough in Northern Ireland – by Emma Elobeid and Tansy Robertson-Fall
“It was Christmas Day. I was in the Southern Ocean beneath Australia. The conditions were horrendous. I was approaching a part in the ocean that was 2,000 miles away from the nearest town. The nearest land was Antarctica and the nearest people would be those manning the International Space Station above me. I really was in the middle of nowhere.
You enter a different mode when you head out there. Your boat is your entire world, and what you take with you when you leave is your entire world. No other experience in my life could have given me a better understanding of the definition of the word ‘finite’. Never in life had I ever translated that definition of finite that I felt on board to anything outside of sailing, until I stepped off the boat at the finish line. I connected the dots — our global economy is no different.
The economy is entirely dependent on finite materials. Burning fossil fuels for energy suddenly seemed illogical. Designing things in ways that meant materials would ultimately end up in a landfill, equally troubling. And then there was the damage that was being done to the environment through extraction, undermining its ability to regenerate and provide us with the things we need for life. There had to be a better way.”
––– Ellen MacArthur
Although, as writers, we have not sailed the world's ocean as Ellen has done, her incredible voyage inspired us to take our own journey of exploration into the and, specifically within this piece, to discover the powerful transformation it can unlock on land and at sea. Living in our respective coastal towns has shown us how the seas that surround us shape so much of our planet's ecosystem and play a vital role in the future of our economy and environment.
We’re all connected to the ocean; it is vital for our survival.
It is more than two decades since ‘A Blue Planet’ first introduced the world, in sweeping cinematography, to never-before-filmed marine life and underwater terrains. In 2022, its narrator, Sir David Attenborough left 90 Heads of State at the opening of the United Nations Ocean Conference with a message; it is the ocean that “defines our planet. It sustains us. [...] The air we breathe and the water we consume are ultimately linked to the seas. The ocean drives our weather and stabilises our climate." More than just a spectacular ecosystem in its own right, the ocean is an enabler of life on Earth.
The ocean generates half of the world’s oxygen, sequesters roughly a quarter of human-made carbon emissions, and absorbs more than 90% of the excess heat associated with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Maintaining these essential ecosystem services is crucial to the regulation of our climate and, increasingly, the mitigation of climate change.
It is economically vital too; just as billions rely on the ocean for food, income, and culture, its ecosystems such as kelp forests hold both immense ecological and economic value.
Though there still remains so much to explore of the ocean’s depths, it is undisputed that the ocean is rich in biodiversity; from microscopic organisms to marine megafauna. Each ocean dweller interacts with the underwater environment in ways that help to stabilise the ocean’s temperature, regulate its carbon cycles, support the drift and direction of its currents, and maintain its chemical makeup by mitigating the local impacts of ocean acidification.
This intersection of water and warming, known as the ocean–climate nexus, underscores the ocean’s critical role as the planet’s life support system.
In recognition of the need for urgent action to protect these vast and vital blue spaces, the ocean has started to show up in climate change conversations it had previously been sidelined in, and in 2022 the UN set a target to protect 30% of the global ocean by 2030.
More recently, people around the world celebrated the agreement by UN members to protect the majority of the global ocean – the high seas – that sit outside of national jurisdiction. Each intervention offers fresh hope and renewed optimism, but there is still some work to do before the details of this historic treaty are universally ratified. True transformation takes time.
In the meantime, the ocean is under intense and increasing pressure: already, 2023’s El Niño has led to record-breaking sea surface temperatures, with further impacts expected.
Our extractive, wasteful, and polluting economy is weakening the ocean’s ability to fulfil critical ecosystem functions. The impact of the upon underwater systems can be mapped against the five direct drivers of global biodiversity loss.
Actions to halt and reverse the negative impacts of the linear economy on the ocean often begin with conservation – ring-fencing areas not to be touched by the economy but left for nature.
Conservation efforts have shown progress is possible: since 2000, waters covered by marine protected areas (MPAs) have increased almost tenfold, accounting for 6.35% of the global ocean. Studies show positive effects, largely from increased abundance in fish biomasses due to reduced fishing pressure. More recently, the High Seas Treaty formalised an agreement that aims to protect even more of these shared ocean spaces – 30% by 2030.
While widely – and rightly – celebrated as a watershed moment, it is important to highlight the limits as well as the merits of a conservation approach. Research into the long-term effectiveness of MPAs acknowledges that they are not enough to offset the larger scale biotic alterations associated with increasing climate change. However, marine biodiversity doesn’t behave at the behest of national jurisdictions, so we also need multilateral action that provides protection against the misuse of the remaining 70% not covered by the High Seas Treaty.
At sea there is continual motion. The very nature of the ocean’s tidal flows and constant currents mean that while protecting designated habitats is a vital part of the picture, pockets of intervention can only take us so far. We cannot reduce emissions, tackle pollution, or target waste in some areas while continuing to pursue extraction and overexploitation in others. The whole system needs to change.
While we desperately need more conservation, we also need to go beyond conservation.
Just as transformation on land requires us to think about the whole system rather than siloed strategies, halting and reversing ocean biodiversity loss at the scale required to enable regeneration requires a holistic approach.
To tackle the threats to the ocean ecosystem at their root in ways that address each of the five drivers of biodiversity loss, we need to make fundamental changes to how our economy works. That means transitioning away from the linear extractive and wasteful model to a circular economy in which: waste and pollution are eliminated, reducing threats to nature; products and materials are kept in use, leaving more space for nature; and nature is regenerated, allowing ecosystems to thrive.
Importantly, because of the codependencies between green and blue spaces, this transformation needs to happen on land and at sea in harmony.
In a circular economy, waste and pollution are designed out – they are eliminated.
The global food system is one of the most wasteful and polluting sectors in a linear economy – responsible for over a third of GHG emissions. Changing this food system to one based on the principles of the circular economy can help tackle climate change and build biodiversity while meeting nutritional needs.
Though conventional agriculture practised on industrial scales, expansive commercial fisheries, and intensive aquaculture each look very different, these land- and sea-based food systems have some common ways of operating.
They also have more positive parallels: they all hold a potential for transformation and capacity for regeneration.
Eliminating pollutants from a land-based food system – synthetic fertilisers from fruit farming, chemical pesticides from pepper production, hazardous substances from packaging – prevents runoff from polluting waterways and entering the ocean.
The same is true at sea. Eliminating fertilisers, chemical additives, and artificial inputs from aquaculture production (whether for food or other products) prevents harmful substances from leaking into surrounding water and disrupting neighbouring ecosystems.
Applying similar design-led elimination strategies – from solid format shampoo to compostable food casings – across the entire economy can also directly cut GHG emissions associated with production, packaging, and post-use processes from materials and products of every kind.
In reducing these waste and pollution-related threats to the ocean, we also drastically reduce the pressure on above water and underwater ecosystems.
Many of the transversal threats facing the ocean stem from the simple fact that, in a linear economy, too many products are used too few times or not for long enough. By designing and building things differently, a circular economy can help meet society’s needs with far fewer virgin resources.
Adopting models for plastic packaging alone can reduce not only the volume of plastic in the ocean but consequently harm to marine wildlife, level of pollution, and amount of debris upon which invasive alien species can be transported.
Circulating products and materials within the economy isn’t just about keeping them out of the environment – our blue spaces should also be protected from extraction and overexploitation.
Each time we prioritise models that avoid the extraction of natural resources, we are better able to leave room for the recovery and prosperity of nature beneath and above water.
In a circular economy, this involves applying principles of reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling (or where appropriate, ) to everything from durable household goods to everyday electronic devices for the benefit of biodiversity. Applying reuse models in the built environment, for example – the main global consumer of sand – can help reduce demand for seabed extraction by extending the value embedded in those materials which already exist.
Some of these same principles exist in ocean industries too: from reusable fishing pots, nets, and lines to remanufactured marine equipment and rented water sports apparel. Meanwhile, methods are being developed to make use of plastic waste recovered from the sea into walkways and platforms for aquaculture facilities.
Other initiatives turn the high volume of waste byproducts from marine industries into high-value products for use on land: fish scales into functional surfaces, Tilapia skins into fashion accessories, collagen into cosmetics, and even chitosan extracted from crustacean waste into wound care and vital medicines. However, many of these enterprises involve high-tech, energy-intensive processes. Therefore, while waste-to-wealth initiatives form part of a circular economy at sea, just as they do a circular economy on land, they do not represent a total systems solution to the challenges our oceans are facing.
Accelerating the transition towards a circular economy, which tackles each systemic challenge at scale, is therefore vital to address the ocean’s overlapping crises.
In part 2 of ‘The circular economy at sea’, publishing on World Ocean Day 2023, we discuss the vital third principle of the circular economy – regenerating nature. By adapting ocean operations according to circular principles, we can actively help to regenerate our shared blue spaces.
All photographs supplied by: Theo Vickers Marine Wildlife Photography