Predicted growth in plastic waste exceeds efforts to mitigate plastic pollution

Back in 2015, the world agreed that 8 million metric tonnes (MT) of plastic waste contaminating the ocean alone was unacceptable. Among other international platforms, the collective commitments of Our Ocean, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the Ocean Plastic Charter aim to address this crisis. 

I was in the middle of the campaign to ban plastic bags in Tāmaki Makaura and I was curious how much impact these collective commitments and actions were actually going to have on reducing plastic entering the environment. So, along with come colleagues, I decided to see if I could answer that question.

In 2017, we got news that our proposal for a National Socio-Ecological Synthesis Centre (SESYNC) Pursuit grant was successful. This allowed us to bring together some of the leading experts on plastic pollution in the world. We set out with an ambitious plan and had to overcome many obstacles. I am not going to lie – it was a hard slog.

Over the next 2 years we modelled future scenarios to see how much those global commitments would reduce plastic pollution in the face of increasing production, consumption, and population growth.

We published the results of this work in Science this week.

It turns out if governments around the world adhere to their global commitments to reduce plastic pollution, and ALL other countries join in these efforts, in 2030 we may still emit as much as 53 MT of plastic waste into the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Global commitments do not match the scale of the problem.

So, then we wanted to know how much effort it would be to achieve a global reduction target of less than 8 Mt using existing mitigation strategies: reducing plastic waste (which includes bans), improving waste management, and recovery (i.e., clean-up) from the environment.

The level of effort is astonishing, even with parallel efforts in all three solutions,

  • We have to reduce plastic waste by 25 – 40% across all economies, AND
  • We have to increase the level of waste management by extraordinary numbers – from 6% to 60% managed in low income economies, AND
  • We have to cleanup of 40% of annual plastic emissions. To put this final number into people-power, the clean-up effort alone would require the efforts of at least 1 billion people participating in Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup—a Herculean task given this is a 90,000% increase in effort from the 2019 clean-up. 

What do we need?

Unless growth in plastic production and use is halted, a fundamental transformation of the plastic economy is urgently needed, where end-of-life plastic products are valued rather than becoming waste. Otherwise, we are locked into a plastic future…

Scenarios of plastic emissions to 2030. Infographic by Creative Cause Australia

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