Plastic is designed to last. Fortunate for our shelves, but unfortunate for our oceans. It is reported that 5.25 trillion plastic pieces have travelled into our oceans, and an additional 8 million tonnes is added to this number year on year. Due to the durable material most packaging is made out of, plastic remains in our oceans for decades until it actually breaks down. The multiple-mile clusters of plastic that swamp our oceans are affecting the freight industry’s biggest form of cargo transportation: shipping. How is the supply chain coping? What are the problems that lie ahead, and what does the future of our blue horizons look like?

According to government statistics, the UK uses 13 billion plastic water bottles every year, yet only 7.5 billion of those are successfully recycled. Furthermore, the UK throws away 2.5 billion coffee cups every year, and yet again, less than 1 in 400 of the 2.5bn are actually recycled. We’re living in a throw-away culture: in the bin goes our empty plastic bottle, but so does our consideration of where it will end up. Intrigued as to where it does end up? Sadly, in our oceans and landfills. 

As you can imagine, this creates an abundance of problems for the ocean freight industry, such as creating obstacles, delays and even potential hazards or damages to engine propellers. According to the International Maritime Organisation, these problems are becoming more serious for overseas shippers, especially if the amount of waste in our waters is on the increase. Scientists anticipate that by 2050, there will be more plastic waste in our oceans than fish. Should these predictions come true, it could affect freight, disturbing ships and vessels’ route accessibility. 

Another area of freight that is being affected is the slowdown of waste that is being imported. Let’s revisit the aforementioned government statistic: 13 billion plastic water bottles are used, yet 7.5 billion are recycled and re-used. Due to the lack of recycled produce, this has slowed down the Chinese economy and plastic shipping rates. FORWARDER spoke to freight forwarder Transocean, specialists of recyclable cargo, who agreed that there has been a noticeable decline in plastic waste transportation. Ultimately, less plastic is being recycled, so there’s less demand for the shipment of it. 

This slowdown of recycled goods is potentially a knock-on affect from the new quality standards that have recently been implemented. Standards of recycling have become much stricter. For example, materials such as cardboard will only be accepted by China if the contamination rates fall below 0.5%, as opposed to the previous 1.5% rate. This means that cardboard could be rejected and sent back via container ships to where it came from, should it still have staples or dirt. These regulations have been tightened with the aim to recycle more efficiently and effectively, thus making the environment much more sustainable, however there still remains a chance these new recycling rules are forming more problems than it solves. For example, recycling companies could be finding themselves with more frequent rejections, and should recycling rules become ‘too strict’, consumers could form a negative view on recycling, not bothering at all. 

Countries including the US and the UK rely on cardboard and waste recycling, exporting millions of tonnes of products to China. Some or all of this produce could be rejected, so along with the above issues, this could be problematic for the freight forwarding industry, shipping waste back and forth to importers and exporters. This is called ‘reverse logistics’, which also applies to e-commerce. 

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The good news is that the Government has enforced a strategy to encourage efficient recycling, aiming to  reserve material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy in England.   

The newly implemented plastic-hacking method is set to eliminate all type of waste that is avoidable (including public waste) by 2050. 

There is a prioritisation on waste crime, seeing as it cost the English economy around £600 million in 2016 alone. In order to create cleaner and safer oceans, these government’s actions consist of:

  • Preserving stock of material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy
  • Minimising the damage caused to our natural environment by reducing and managing waste safely and carefully
  • Dealing with waste crime

Our strategy focuses on known problems with effective solutions that, among other benefits, will reduce our reliance on single-use plastics, cut confusion over household recycling, tackle the problems of packaging and end the economic, environmental and moral scandal that is food waste. Nations such as China are no longer prepared to accept lower quality waste materials; nor indeed should this nation be offshoring its waste for others to deal with. 

Michael Gove, Secretary of Food & Rural Affairs

With the promise of a waste-free 2050, there is still a long way to go to improve ocean quality. Whether it’s environmental, freight-related or health concerns, plastic waste seeping into our oceans is having an impact the economy, worldwide. Is this plastic problem getting caught up in your freight business? Get in touch at to share your thoughts. 

Rachel Jefferies, Editor, FORWARDER magazine