Jul 23, 2020 - Science

Study: Massive expected plastic pollution can be curbed

Black and white photo of a person walking on the edge of Santa Lucia beach in Mexico filled with plastic bottles everywhere

Waste on Santa Lucia beach in Acapulco, Mexico, on June 7 on the eve of World Oceans Day. Photo: Francisco Robles/AFP via Getty Images

Currently available solutions could halt up to 80% of plastic pollution flowing into the ocean and the ground annually within 20 years, per a new analysis published in Science Thursday.

Threat level: Without urgent action, the yearly flow of plastics into the ocean globally is expected to nearly triple to 29 million tons by 2040 — and remain at that level for hundreds of years. Even under the best-case of curbing pollution, plastic's long degradation time means there'll still be a large amount, or roughly 710 million metric tons, of cumulative plastic pollution, researchers warn.

Details: The analysis, conducted by an international collaboration by Pew Charitable Trusts, SYSTEMIQ and others over two years, modeled six scenarios (including business-as-usual) that quantified the flow and amount of plastic in the global system and compared the quantity of pollution between 2016 and 2040.

  • "This was really the first comprehensive study of the full plastic system, from production to the various ways plastic is treated when it's at the end of its useful life," says Winnie Lau, senior manager with Pew’s Preventing Ocean Plastics project.
  • The group of experts wanted to examine proposed strategies and "see which ones work," says Lau, one of the co-authors.
  • Similar to "flattening the curve" of the pandemic, the researchers want to "bend the curve on ocean" pollution, she adds.
  • Right now, the world has about 11 million metric tons flowing into the ocean each year, and another 18 million going into the environment — about 10% of what the world produces each year, Lau notes.

What they found: The business-as-usual scenario showed global plastic pollution entering the environment by 2040 would reach roughly 80 metric tons per year.

  • The current commitment scenario showed a reduction in the flow of plastic into the ocean by almost 7% by 2040, but would still be adding about 75 metric tons each year.
  • The best-case-scenario, which would involve large systemic changes, is the only scenario where the amount of pollution entering the environment drops below 2016 rates, projecting 18 metric tons per year of plastic pollution in 2040.

Between the lines: "There is no silver bullet. None of the single-focus strategies for dealing with plastic pollution can get us really past where we are today," Lau says.

  • The report points to eight current strategies that nations and governments could utilize now.
  • Lau says three of the biggest changes could be from significantly reducing plastic production and use; substituting other materials like biodegradable materials or paper with plastic coating; and, doubling the amount we recycle.
  • Another key step, Lau says, is to incorporate into new strategies the informal sector of "waste pickers." There are an estimated 11 million waste pickers, mostly in developing nations, who collect about 60% of global plastic recycling.

The bottom line: "By using the knowledge, approaches and technologies we have today, we can cut the amount of plastic going into the environment by 80% in 20 years," Lau says. "This is the surprise and hopeful finding from the report."

  • "We don't need to invent something new. We don't need some new technology or new research in order to make that happen. We have what we need today," she says.
  • But the report states that fully eliminating plastic pollution will require "dramatically increasing innovation and investment, with significant technological advances, new business models and a greater emphasis on research and development."

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