Ecologists studying the prevalence of plastic pollution in aquatic ecosystems around the world are concerned after measuring the level of human response required to reduce future emissions and control what is already floating around out there.
“Unless the growth in plastics production and use stops, a fundamental shift in the plastics economy to a recycling-based framework where end-of-life plastic products are valued rather than waste is imperative,” said Chelsea Rochman, assistant professor at the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto (U of T) and senior author of a study published in Science describing the increasing pace at which plastic emissions enter Earth’s waterways each year.
“Even if governments around the world meet their ambitious global commitments and other countries join in these efforts to curb plastic pollution, global annual emissions to rivers, lakes and oceans could be as high as 53 million tons by 2030,” says Stephanie Borrelle, Smith Postdoctoral Fellow at U of T and lead author of the study. “That is far more than the amount of 8 million tons that was declared unacceptable in 2015.”
Research by an international group of experts led by Rochman and Borrelle consisted of an assessment of the effort required to meet a global plastic pollution reduction target of less than 8 million tonnes (MT).
The group initially estimated that 24 to 34 million tons of plastic emissions are currently entering aquatic ecosystems annually. They then modeled future scenarios using existing mitigation strategies: reducing the production of plastic waste (including bans), improving the management of the plastic waste produced, and continuously recovering (i.e. cleaning) it from the environment.
The researchers found that even with parallel efforts in all three solutions, the effort in each solution is enormous:
(1) Reduce plastic production by 25 to 40% in all economies;
(2) Increase the level of waste collection and management in all economies to at least 60% – with a change of 6 to 60% in low-income economies;
(3) Recovering 40% of annual plastic emissions through clean-up operations.
“To bring this last number into the power of the people, at least 1 billion people would have to participate in the Ocean Conservancy’s annual international shoreline cleanup just for the cleanup,” says Borrelle. “This would be a Herculean task as this is 660 times the cleanup effort of 2019.”
However, the researchers find that the world remains trapped in an unacceptable plastic future even if the prescribed effort is realized.
“The global community needs to coordinate a fundamental transformation in the plastics economy that will reduce the amount of virgin plastic production and redefine the way we use and dispose of plastic materials,” says Rochman.
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation through the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).
Source of the story:
Materials provided by University of Toronto. Originally written by Sean Bettam. Note: the content can be edited by style and length.