Plastic in the oceans set to treble by 2040

Pablo Tucker
July 29, 2020

"Breaking the Plastic Wave" identifies eight measures that together could reduce by 2040 about 80 per cent of the plastic pollution that flows into the ocean annually, using technology and solutions available today. Face masks and latex gloves are washing up daily on Asia's remote beaches.

However, the study by Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ also identifies solutions that could reduce this volume by more than 80% using technologies that are now available. That represents a tripling of the annual flow of plastic into the ocean. Because plastic remains in the ocean for hundreds of years and may never truly biodegrade, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean by 2040 could reach 600 million tons-equivalent in weight to more than 3 million blue whales. "More than 800 species are already known to be affected by marine plastic pollution". While companies have promised to reduce unnecessary or problematic plastics, "if plastic isn't collected in a country, it's all problematic", Mr. Hogg said.

Winnie Lau, a scientist at the Pew Charitable Trusts, calls on all of society to act.

Going forward, she says even if people start their efforts today, the problem will get worse before it gets better. If manufacturers shifted to alternative materials, such as paper and compostable materials, and ensured that products and packaging were designed for recycling, the amount of recyclable plastic would not only rise, but increase in value.

This development would require a complete turnaround from world policymakers and the industrial sector.


About 1.3 billion tons of plastic will be dumped into our environment by 2040, both on land and in the ocean, according to a global model of the scale of the plastic problem. In 2017, that number was 348 million tonnes, and is expected to double again by 2040, the study estimates.

One reason that current policies have done so little to reduce the overall amount of plastics entering the environment is that they tend to focus on single items, like straws or bags. But it is also a unique opportunity for providers of new and existing materials and industries that use circular business models and reuse and refill systems, which are created to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible.

Crucially, the increased use of plastic due to COVID-19 will heighten the urgency to develop interventions at all stages of the value chain.

Some of the biggest buyers of plastic are consumer goods companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and Unilever.

However, while they supported the project overall, Break Free from Plastic and Oceana disagreed with the inclusion of certain technologies like plastic incineration and chemical recycling.


Although progress has been made in addressing the global plastic challenge, the report found that current commitments by government and industry, even if they are successfully delivered, will reduce the amount of ocean plastic by only 7 per cent by 2040.

A recent study offers several detailed solutions that could reduce the predicted amount of plastic debris in the Seas by more than 80 percent. By 2050, there will be more of it than fish in the waters, according to the BBC.

"This is a dream we will have to give up that we can continue to grow plastic output infinitely and see collection and recycling systems easily pick up with it", said Martin Stuchtey, head of Systemiq. Still, he added, a few basic systems are core to making a difference.

"Without meaningful change, about four billion people worldwide are likely to be without organised waste collection services by 2040", the authors said.

"This scientific inquiry has for the first time given us a comprehensive insight into the staggering amounts of plastic waste that are being dumped into the world's terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems". Currently, two billion people lack access to waste collection systems that would enable recycling. The model estimates the quantity of plastic waste inputs into the environment and was used to evaluate the effects of five scenarios: business as usual; improving collection and disposal; increasing recycling; reducing plastic use and substituting alternatives; and system change, which integrates all of these interventions.


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