If global policy-makers fail to freeze virgin plastic production at 2020 levels and improve waste collection systems around the world, the burden of plastic in our oceans will be enough to line every metre of coastline on Earth with 50 kilograms of trash by 2040. But it isn’t too late to cut that burden by 80%, if decisive action begins now.
By that year, the amount of plastic litter reaching our oceans annually will nearly triple from its current level of 11 million tonnes, reports Bloomberg Green, citing a new study co-authored by Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts and UK-based SystemIQ, recently published in the journal Science.
But that devastating outcome may be avoidable.
“There is a path where we can have substantial reduction,” said report co-author Winnie Lau, senior manager with Pew’s ocean plastics prevention program. A combination of cutting virgin plastic production, improving global waste collection systems, and innovating recycling technology could cut the coming tsunami of poisonous and entangling trash by 80%.
“We picked numbers that were realistic to achieve but not easy,” Lau told Bloomberg.
The models estimate the quantity of plastic pollution that will make it to the oceans by 2040 under six scenarios ranging from “business as usual” to a total overhaul of the plastic system, from production through collection, consumption, and disposal/recycling. For each scenario, the authors compare the associated cost, climate, and employment implications.
Critical to avoiding the devastating effects of “business as usual” will be taking steps to provide waste collection for the four billion people worldwide who otherwise lack such systems. “The report calls for connecting an average of 500,000 people to waste collection networks each day through 2040, at a total government cost of $600 billion,” says Bloomberg.
SystemIQ co-founder Martin Stuchtey stressed that the best waste collection and recycling programs on Earth won’t be enough unless the production of virgin plastics goes “essentially flat”—starting today.
“Even if we allow for ambitious increases in recycling and collection and substitution of materials, we still cannot get there unless we freeze plastic production at 2020 levels,” he told Bloomberg. “Either refineries have to change their plans, or we have to acknowledge there is no way to get out of increased ocean pollution.”