Study projects plastic waste in oceans will triple by 2040 — but there's something we can do

The amount of plastic in Earth’s oceans is expected to triple by 2040 to a whopping 600 million metric tons if humans do absolutely nothing, according to a report put together by Pew Charitable Trust and SystemIQ in a peer-reviewed scientific paper in the journal Science.

“No one knows for certain how much plastic, which is virtually indestructible, has accumulated in the seas. The best guess, made in 2015, was about 150 million metric tons. Assuming things remain the same, the study estimates that accumulation will become 600 million metric tons by 2040,” according to National Geographic.

The report proposes a newly revamped outlook and method to help get plastic out of the world’s oceans by at least 80 percent, and eventually 100 percent, with tools that already exist.

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“Our analysis shows that a future with approximately 80 percent less annual plastic leakage into the ocean relative to business as usual is achievable by 2040 using existing technologies,” the report reads. “This pathway provides benefits to communities, to governments, and even to industry. However, it depends on the immediate, ambitious, and concerted global implementation of solutions across the entire plastics value chain.”

While tools to reduce plastic waste are available, incentives are not, the report suggests.

“Although the technical solutions exist, the incentives are not always in place to scale up these changes fast enough. A reduction of plastic production— through elimination, the expansion of consumer reuse options, or new delivery models—is the most attractive solution from environmental, economic, and social perspectives,” the report reads.

The study took into account four different ongoing trends, which included:

-Continued population growth

-Increases in plastic use per capita driven in part by increasing production of cheap virgin plastic

-Shifts to low value/nonrecyclable materials

-Growing share of plastic consumption occurring in countries with low rates of collection

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The “System Change Scenario,” which models what could be if swift action is taken against plastic production, outlines several steps that could deter from the bleak numbers projected for 2040.

-Reduce growth in plastic production and consumption to avoid nearly one-third of projected plastic waste generation through elimination, reuse, and new delivery models.

-Substitute plastic with paper and compostable materials, switching one-sixth of projected plastic waste generation.

-Design products and packaging for recycling to expand the share of economically recyclable plastic from an estimated 21 percent to 54 percent.

-Expand waste collection rates in the middle-/low-income countries to 90 percent in all urban areas and 50 percent in rural areas and support the informal collection sector.

-Double mechanical recycling capacity globally to 86 million metric tons per year.

-Develop plastic-to-plastic conversion, potentially to a global capacity of up to 13 million metric tons per year.

-Build facilities to dispose of the 23 percent of plastic that cannot be recycled economically, as a transitional measure.

-Reduce plastic waste exports by 90 percent to countries with low collection and high leakage rates.

-Roll out known solutions for four microplastic sources—tyres, textiles, personal care products and production pellets—to reduce annual microplastic leakage to the ocean by 1.8 million metric tons per year (from 3 million metric tons to 1.2 million metric tons) by 2040.

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But this still leaves about 5 million metric tons of plastic flowing into the oceans, even if the “System Change Scenario” is implemented.

The report suggests to get rid of the remaining metric tons of plastic, it will require an additional $100 billion a year and will be “including moon-shot ambitions, to help middle-/low-income countries to leapfrog the unsustainable linear economy model of high-income countries.”

The most crucial part of getting rid of the additional 5 million metric tons of plastic waste will require innovation as far as financing and policies.

But how much will all of it cost, combined? According to the report, the total global cost to governments of managing plastic waste in the low-leakage “System Change Scenario” between 2021 and 2040 is estimated to be $600 billion.

“System-wide problems demand system-wide change,” the report stated.

Despite the daunting $600 billion price point, the report suggests one positive outlook for the future of companies and innovators:

“Embarking on the trajectory to get to about 80 percent leakage reduction will create significant opportunities for companies ahead of the curve, ready to embrace new business opportunities that unlock value from a circular economy that derives revenue from circulation of materials rather than one based on the extraction and conversion of fossil fuels,” according to the report. “Large new value pools can be created around better design, better materials, better delivery models, improved sorting and recycling technologies, and smart collection and supply chain management systems.”

Potentially implementing the “System Change Scenario” also represents a positive outlook for workers, who effort alleviating plastic pollution in oceans is not particularly recognized, the study stated.

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“The ‘System Change Scenario’ also represents a positive social vision for the global community of 11 million waste pickers, who in 2016 were responsible for 60 percent (range 56 percent-65 percent) of global plastic recycling,” the report suggested.

The report implores governments to create significant incentives for sustainable change that will help save the planet.

“Taken together, our findings on plastic pollution substantiate catastrophic outlooks for the ocean if we continue on the current trajectory,” the report said.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, not so long as real effort is put forth by all countries, using tools that are already at their disposal, according to the report.

“Achieving the potential of such a rapid and holistic pathway towards the goal of near-zero ocean plastic leakage is within reach, but it will require enhanced ambitions,” the report stated.