Plastic Pollution in the Oceans Is On Track to Triple by 2040: Study
As of today, roughly 11 million metric tons of plastic make their way into the oceans each year. A new study has estimated that if no action is taken, this will almost triple to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040. Because plastic remains in the oceans forever, the cumulative amount of plastic in the waters in 20 years could ultimately reach 600 million metric tons — equivalent in weight to more than three million blue whales.
The study was conducted by a London-based environmental think tank, Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq, a consultancy, in collaboration with academics from Oxford University and Leeds University, and a panel of 17 world experts. The team used a first-of-its-kind economic model to come up with calculations and projections.
The authors pointed out that some factors driving the growth of plastic waste include global population growth and the increasing plastic production and with it, a rise in per capita use. This is especially true of developing countries, such as India, that are seeing an expansion of the middle class, but no concurrent improvements in waste management. They added, waste management is often a neglected area for governments in developing countries and ends up becoming part of the informal economy. Within the informal economy, waste pickers are paid by the weight of material they collect, so they tend to avoid picking up products like thin plastic materials, meaning these lightweight plastics are more likely to end up finding their way into the oceans.
Along with unsuccessful worldwide campaigns to curb plastic pollution, governments’ failure to deliver on implementing successful recycling policies has also meant more virgin plastic makes its way into circulation. Currently, two billion people lack access to waste collection systems that would enable recycling. By 2040, this number is likely to double to four billion, especially in middle-and-low-income countries.
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All the efforts made and announced so far, such as banning single-use plastic or charging for plastic bags by governments and companies, will reduce the projected volume of plastic litter into the oceans by only about 7% by 2040, the study found. This is because most new regulations focus on specific items rather than systemic change.
According to researchers, middle-and-low-income countries should focus on expanding the collection of plastic waste, maximizing reduction and substitution, and investing in recycling infrastructure. High-income countries, on the other hand, could incentivize reductions in plastic usage, boost recycling levels, and end exports of plastic waste.
By taking these actions, the annual flow of plastic waste into the oceans could be reduced by 80% in the next two decades.
“There’s no single solution to ocean plastic pollution, but through rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave,” said Tom Dillon, Pew’s vice president for environment. “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.”
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