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The World is on Track to Triple Ocean Plastic Pollution by 2040

The good news? The solutions are clear.

hongkong_nick mallos
A plastic-ridden shoreline in Hong Kong. © Nick Mallos

Last week, the journal Science published an article by our colleagues at The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ modeling various plastics pollution scenarios over the next 20 years. The results were alarming. According to the study, if we continue to produce, consume and dispose of plastics at our current rate, we will see a nearly threefold increase in plastics entering aquatic systems from land by 2040.

Even more troubling, they found that current commitments by the private sector and world governments to reduce the amount of plastic entering our ocean and waterways are not nearly enough. If society implements all of these current commitments to reduce plastic pollution, we only stem the flow by 7%—which at our business-as-usual (BAU) rate would mean 29 million metric tons of plastic flowing into the ocean by 2040, and a cumulative plastic stock of 600 million metric tons in the marine environment.

The researchers looked at various interventions available to bend the curve, including reducing plastic consumption, increasing rates of reuse, waste collection and recycling, expanding safe disposal systems, and accelerating innovation in a variety of areas. Compared to BAU, reducing and substituting plastic materials had the highest impact, leading to a 59% reduction by 2040 compared to business-as-usual. Improving collection and disposal reduced inputs by 57% by 2040, while the recycling scenario led to a 45% reduction. But ultimately, Lau et al. (2020) found that neither pre- nor post-consumption interventions alone are sufficient. Rather, we must deploy a “System Change” scenario whereby we implement all of these interventions to achieve a nearly 80% reduction in plastic pollution relative to BAU at 2040.

These findings signal that we are at a clear fork in the road. Our current path leads us to a fate that is not sustainable for the health of our ocean or the communities and wildlife that depend on it; the other takes us on a journey where we fundamentally rethink our relationship and approach to plastics and waste. The choice is obvious.

We have long said at Ocean Conservancy: we all have a role to play. Never have these words held truer. Whether you’re a government looking to implement policies like extended producer responsibility or a company looking to redesign its packaging or an individual opting to skip the straw, quit the cutlery or clean-up, the time is now to act. We need “all hands on deck.”

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