Report finds that plastic flow into oceans will triple by 2040 without immediate action

The study also offers solutions, including increased recycling and replacing single-use plastics.

July 27, 2020

New research by Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia, and Systemiq, London, is the foundation for a new report, “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A comprehensive assessment of pathways towards stopping ocean plastic pollution.”

The report details the immediate actions needed to curb the amount of plastic waste entering the world’s oceans.

Winnie Lau, who has a doctorate in oceanography and has spent years working in ocean conservation, with Pew worked on this research. She says it’s time to act for the sake of our planet.

“I think we all know the problem is bad, but we don’t fully appreciate how bad it could get,” Lau says. “So having these numbers, I think, really opens up the dialogue to have an honest, open debate about what we’re choosing.”

Without action, this research says the plastic entering the oceans will grow from 11 million metric tons to 29 million metric tons over the next two decades. Because plastic in oceans never biodegrades, the amount would weigh nearly 600 million tons, about the same as 3 million blue whales.

The research used a model to quantify the flow of plastic and determine the best ways to reduce it.

Lau says this report highlights some of the ways to fix the issue that are realistic and still impactful. Current measures in place by the industry and governments will only reduce plastic in the ocean by about 7 percent.

Through this research, eight measures were found that can reduce plastic in oceans by 80 percent, including reducing plastic production and consumption, using paper instead of plastic where available, expanding waste collection in low-income countries and increasing recycling.

When it comes to recycling, the report offers a few solutions. Redesigning plastic packaging to either be plastic-free or only have one layer of plastic. Replacing single-use products such as water bottles and plastic bags with items that can be reused. Refilling is another suggestion from the report in the form of more subscription services that can refill plastic bottles instead of dispensing new ones.

The report also talks about goals of doubling of mechanical recycling capacity globally, scaling up collection rates in middle- and low-income countries and reducing scrap exports to countries with low plastic scrap collection volumes of their own.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), Washington, has responded to the report, saying it agrees with the urgent need to invest in waste management infrastructure and reduce the use of unnecessary plastics.

However, ACC says that according to a 2016 report prepared by Trucost (in collaboration with ACC), “replacing plastics in packaging and consumer products with alternative materials could raise environmental costs nearly fourfold, including through significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions.” 

America’s plastic makers are also looking to 2040, setting a goal for all plastic packaging used in the United States to be reused, recycled or recovered, ACC says. 

“I think 10, 15 years ago, the recognition that this was a problem was not as pervasive as it is today,” Lau says. Now that more people are aware, she says we are now at a good point to make conscious decisions to solve the problem.

Lau says it’s essential to solve this problem at scale. This is not something that can, or should, be fixed overnight. She says this report helps to show what areas need more focus immediately and what can be more long-term solutions.

“If everyone does put in 100 percent effort, I do think we’re on track to ending plastic pollution going into the ocean, into the environment,” Lau says. “I would say if society, if governments, businesses really do put their hearts and minds behind it, we can get to what we’re calling near-zero plastic pollution in the ocean.”

Going forward, she says even if people start their efforts today, the problem will get worse before it gets better. But she says that doesn’t mean we should wait, because the problem isn’t going away.

While this sounds like a costly mission to take on, not acting will actually cost more in the long run. If current trends continue, fixing this issue in 20 years will cost governments and the public $70 billion, according to the report.  

If people only take one thing away from this report, she says she hopes that it’s that the future of our planet is entirely in ours hands.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, founded in 1948, is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization with the mission to serve the public interest by "improving public policy, informing the public, and invigorating civic life."

Systemiq is a systems change company that partners with business, finance, policymakers and civil society to make economic systems truly sustainable. 

To read that full report, click here.