New study finds ocean plastic could triple by 2040

New findings have estimated that the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2040, if governments, businesses and communities do not take action.

The findings were published last week (23 July) in a study entitled ‘Breaking the plastic wave: A comprehensive assessment of pathways towards stopping ocean plastic pollution’ by think tank The Pew Charitable Trusts and systems change experts SYSTEMIQ, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and Common Seas.

Using a first-of-its-kind model of global plastic flows and the quantity of plastic in the ocean between 2016 and 2040, the analysis examines six possible scenarios of varying levels of intervention relating to the potential quantity of plastic in the ocean by 2040, with the aim of reducing plastic flows into the marine environment by 80 per cent by that year.

The report finds that no action to tackle marine plastic pollution would see the amount of plastic entering the ocean each year grow from 11 million metric tons to 29 million tons by 2040, bringing the total amount of plastic in the sea to a cumulative total of 600 million tons.

Even if current commitments to reduce marine plastic pollution are fulfilled, the amount of plastic entering the ocean will only fall by seven per cent by 2040, an issue compounded by the prospect of four billion people lacking access to organised waste collection services in 2040.

In the report’s sixth ‘system change’ scenario, eight interventions are recommended that are calculated to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean every year to five million tons by 2040, if implemented alongside “upstream” (material redesign, plastic reduction, and substitution) and “downstream” (recycling and disposal) solutions.

The eight recommendations suggested by the report include:

  • Reducing growth in plastic production;
  • Substituting plastic with paper and compostable materials;
  • Increasing the share of economically recyclable plastic;
  • Doubling mechanical recycling capacity;
  • Expanding waste collection services;
  • Developing plastic-to-plastic conversion;
  • Building facilities for non-recyclable plastics; and
  • Reducing plastic waste exports to developing countries.

Not only does the report state these recommendations will reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean, according to the analysis, it estimates they could generate savings of $70 billion for governments by 2040, reduce projected plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent and create 700,000 jobs.

However, even if all the measures recommended in the report are taken, this will still leave five million tons of plastic entering the ocean every year. The report states that radical increases in innovation and investment and technological advances and new business models needed to stem the flow completely.

‘Plastic crisis is solvable’

Commenting on the study, Martin Stuchtey, SYSTEMIQ Founder and Managing Partner, said: “Our results indicate that the plastic crisis is solvable. It took a generation to create this challenge; this report shows we can solve it in one generation.

“‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ leaves no viable excuse on the table; we have today all the solutions required to stem plastic flows by more than 80 per cent. What we now need is the industry and government resolve to do so.”

Tom Dillon, Pew Vice President for Environment, added: “There’s no single solution to ocean plastic pollution, but through rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave. As this report shows, we can invest in a future of reduced waste, better health outcomes, greater job creation and a cleaner and more resilient environment for both people and nature.”

Addressing the problem of plastic waste has been high on the environmental agenda of governments in recent years, with startling predictions such as there being more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 illustrating the dangers and negative effects of plastic pollution.

Governments across the world have made commitments and implemented legislation to get a handle on the plastic waste crisis, from the EU’s Single Use Plastic Directive that will ban problematic disposable plastics, to the decision taken by 186 governments to restrict the export of plastic waste to developing countries in the hope of preventing further health crises in already disadvantaged economies.

Businesses have also taken action, with the Plastics Pact movement, which began in the UK, seeing businesses commit to transforming the plastics industry by 2025 with aims including to eliminate ‘unnecessary’ single-use packaging and make 100 per cent plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable.

The EMF, a collaborator in the ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ study and founder of the Plastics Pact movement, has been active in committing to accelerating the global transition to a circular economy in recent years.

As well as the most recent report, the charity contributed to a 2016 study entitled ‘The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics’, which suggested steps to be taken to bring about a systemic shift to circular economy principles.

Dame Ellen MacArthur, Founder and Chair of Trustee for the EMF, reaffirmed the UK charity’s commitment to creating a circular economy for plastic: “By demonstrating how circular economy principles can be applied to global plastic flows, this report provides a model for achieving the systemic shift our economy needs to make in order to work in the long term.”

‘Compostables make sense’

One of the recommendations in the report regards the switching from plastic to compostable plastic alternatives for certain packaging applications. Compostables have gained a heightened profile in recent times, with the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) publishing guidance on their usage in the UK and cross-party MPs and industry representatives calling for the government to step up investment in the material.

David Newman, Managing Director of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), commented on the ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ report: "The SYSTEMIQ report takes a global perspective on how to reduce the negative impact of plastics in packaging and is to be welcomed for the vast repository of knowledge it contains. The researchers have interviewed sector experts from around the world and come up with some very valuable recommendations.”

Newman continued: “Among them is the recognition that compostable packaging is one of the transformational materials from a current, wasteful system in which plastic packaging is mostly unrecyclable, to a system in which materials are used for specific applications that make sense because they have definite end of life destinations.

“Moreover, we need a strong focus upon reduction and prevention, which this report underlines.

"Compostables make sense because they help food waste back to soil cleanly in a circular loop which benefits organic carbon replenishment through composting and renewable energy production through biogas. We have these examples around the world, we need more of them urgently, including in the UK."

You can view the report ‘Breaking the plastic wave: A comprehensive assessment of pathways towards stopping ocean plastic pollution’ in full on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ website, while the technical underpinnings of the report are available in the journal Science.