Plastic waste that spills into the oceans will almost triple by 2040 without drastic measures

The amount of plastic waste that flows into the oceans each year is expected to nearly triple to 29 million tons by 2040.

This single, incomprehensibly large statistic is at the center of a new two-year research project that both sheds light on the failure of the global campaign to curb plastic pollution and sets out an ambitious plan to reduce much of this flow into the seas.

Nobody knows for sure how much plastic, which is practically indestructible, has accumulated in the oceans. The best estimate from 2015 was around 150 million tons. Assuming things stay the same, the study estimates that the accumulation will be 600 million tons by 2040.

Developed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, Ltd., a London-based environmental think tank, the project is essentially calling for a major transformation of the global plastics industry by moving it to a circular economy that is reused and recycled . If such a conversion takes place – and that’s a big problem – Pew experts say the annual flow of plastic waste into the oceans could be reduced by 80 percent over the next two decades, all using existing methods and technology. Even with a five-year delay, an additional 80 million tons of litter can slide off the coast.

The cost of the overhaul is $ 600 billion. That is 70 billion US dollars cheaper than in the next two decades, mainly because of the lower use of fresh plastic. “System-wide problems require system-wide changes,” says the Pew report.

The outlines of the Systems Change Scenario are featured in both a book report published by Pew and a peer-reviewed scientific article in Science, published today. Pew notes that getting to near zero plastic waste in the oceans requires new technology, significant spending and “moonshot ambitions” among other things.

White papers come and go. What makes the Pew report stand out is that it arrives at a critical point in the campaign to curb plastic waste. In just five short years, plastic pollution in the oceans rose to the top level of global environmental problems and launched countless campaigns in almost every country in the world to reduce the use of single-use plastics. On another route, global plastics production is set to increase 40 percent by 2030, and hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested in new plastics production facilities to help maintain the status quo, the report said.

As plastic flows into the oceans and more plastic is produced, it is also becoming increasingly clear that environmental campaigns are not making enough progress. If all industry and government pledges to reduce plastic waste are met by 2040, Pew would likely reduce annual leakage into the oceans by only a tiny fraction.

“We’re at a fork in the road,” says Nicholas Mallos, who oversees the Ocean Conservancy’s marine debris program and was not involved in the Pew project. “The industry said, ‘We’re going to do better. ‘The governments have taken steps. This will be the first eye opening to the world that our current efforts alone will not be enough. The global trajectory is going in the wrong direction. Of course, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with this material. “

(We’re drowning in plastic. Find out why.)

The search for hard economic data

Pew started the study in 2018 after concluding that the missing part of the plastics movement was economic data that guides decision making in the industry, says Simon Reddy, who leads Pew’s ocean plastics and coastal wetlands programs. Without hard numbers, there wasn’t enough evidence or information for companies to make informed decisions. “We have to make decisions about what the future of the planet should look like,” says Reddy. “But we have found that we cannot put numbers behind things. We were poor in data. “

The average American bought seven pairs of shoes in 2018, many of which are made of plastic. Since they are not recyclable, most of them end up in the trash.

To fill in the picture, the team used a unique economic model created by Oxford University in the UK to make the calculations and projections. According to Reddy, the model offers a “roadmap” for reducing plastic waste in different places. An online version of the model was launched today, allowing governments and businesses to incorporate waste data and evaluate trade-offs and solutions tailored to local conditions.

The team eventually numbered more than a hundred experts and included collaborations with the University of Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Common Seas in the UK

The model analyzes the costs and measures the leakage of plastic into the sea when different scenarios with plastic use are applied. For example, increasing the use of other solutions can reduce the use of plastic by 47 percent, including: eliminating unnecessary plastic and reusing containers (30 percent); Composting and replacement of various materials, e.g. B. Exchange of cinematic shopping bags for paper bags (17 percent).

“The writing is on the wall,” said Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit advocating the transition of global industry to an economy that reuses products and materials. “We have to actually leave the oil in the ground and keep the flow of existing polymers in the system and innovate.”

How plastic waste devoured the world

While we don’t know exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, we do know more about what drives the growth of plastic waste. Global population growth and increasing plastic production make up part of it. Per capita consumption is increasing, especially in developing countries – for example India – with a growing middle class and low waste collection rates. Finally, inexpensive virgin plastic enables a shift in the production of an increasing number of low value plastic products that are not recyclable, adding to the flood of plastics that are not collected.

Martin Stuchtey, co-founder and managing partner of SYSTEMIQ, hopes that the project will bring clarity to the global debate about solutions that are often contradictory, impractical or unsustainable. For example, the incineration and open burning of plastic is increasing and, if nothing changes, could increase from 49 million tons in 2016 to 133 million tons in 2040.

Recycling is one of the most effective ways to reduce the use of virgin plastic, but it has to be collected first, and today two billion people do not have access to waste collection systems. By 2040 that number will double to four billion, mostly in rural areas in middle and low income countries. To close the collection gap and connect it to a garbage system, according to Pew, 500,000 people would have to be connected every day by 2040. This is an unimaginable prospect, but it is included in the report to highlight the enormity of the problems involved in waste containment worldwide.

“Good luck with that,” says Yoni Shiran, SYSTEMIQ project manager and one of the co-authors of the science paper. “If that doesn’t happen, the solution is to come up with a smarter system.”

Plastic bottles fill a recycling plant in Valenzuela, Philippines.

Photo by Randy Olson, Nat Geo Picture Collection

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The coronavirus pandemic has added to the clutter. Falling oil prices have made fresh plastic cheaper than ever to produce. Demand for consumer products encased in single-use plastic has increased as shoppers seek protection from the virus. Nevertheless, Stuchtey sees a silver lining. Before the pandemic, industry resistance fighters argued that systemic changes were too big, too difficult, too expensive, and time-consuming to make. COVID-19 lied to these arguments after the shortage of toilet paper and other goods messed up the supply system and turned shipping companies on their heads.

“We are now seeing how quickly supply chains can really change and reconfigure, and we are beginning to see how unbelief becomes belief,” says Stuchtey.

Win hearts and minds

Winnie Lau, a senior manager at Pew who oversaw the project, says she isn’t concerned about industrial titans who will resist. “I don’t expect that no matter how amazing our results are, we will change everyone’s heart. Our goal is to change the hearts of the main players, and they will create the conditions for, and create the conditions for, new standards for how businesses function. “

To that end, Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, was among the dignitaries at today’s celebration of the completion of the project in London. Last year, the giant consumer goods company committed to cutting its use of fresh plastics by half and helping to collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells. It is a beginning.

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