The world’s rising tide of plastic pollution and how to stem it

The amount of plastic waste in the ocean is expected to triple over the next two decades. — Placebo365/IStock.com via AFP
The amount of plastic waste in the ocean is expected to triple over the next two decades. — Placebo365/IStock.com via AFP

ROME, July 24 — From straws and bags to cups and swabs, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is expected to triple over the next two decades, threatening the health of humans and the planet and fuelling climate change, researchers said yesterday.

However, solutions already exist to reduce this pollution by up to 80 per cent, they said in a report and accompanying scientific paper laying out a new model to quantify stocks and flows of plastic around the world.

The coronavirus pandemic presents an additional challenge, as single-use plastic consumption has increased during the crisis, they noted.

Here are 10 facts on plastic pollution and ways to reduce it from the research, part of which was published in the journal Science:

1. An estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic entered the ocean in 2016, adding to about 150 million tonnes already there. That amount could triple if action is not taken to tackle projected growth in plastic production and consumption.

2. In total, more than 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic are expected to be dumped on land or in water bodies, including the ocean, between 2016 and 2040.

3. Without any action, plastic-related planet-heating emissions would double by 2040 and account for 19 per cent of a total annual emissions budget aligned with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to avoid catastrophic warming. Today, the plastics value chain contributes 3 per cent of global emissions.

4. Because plastic remains in the ocean for hundreds of years and may never truly bio-degrade, there could be 600 million tonnes in the seas by 2040. This is heavier than more than three million blue whales.

5. Current government and industry commitments would cut the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean by only 7 per cent by 2040, while global plastic production is expected to increase by 40 per cent over the next decade.

6. A combination of eight measures, using technology and solutions available today, could cut the volume of plastics going into the ocean by up to 80 per cent. Those include substituting some plastics with alternatives like paper and compostable materials, designing recyclable products and packaging, and collecting more waste in middle- and low-income countries.

7. These changes could, by 2040, make oceans healthier, save governments US$70 billion, reduce projected annual plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent and create 700,000 jobs.

8. Each year, more than 30 million tonnes of plastic are dumped on land and nearly 50 million tonnes are burned in the open, generating potentially toxic fumes and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

9. The biggest source of plastic pollution is uncollected solid municipal waste, much of it from households. About 25 per cent of all plastic waste is not collected and that could climb to a third by 2040.

10. High-income countries should focus on decreasing plastic consumption, improving product design and recycling. In poorer economies, efforts are needed to improve waste collection and invest in sorting and recycling. Sources: Breaking the Plastic Wave report and Evaluating Scenarios Toward Zero Plastic Pollution paper by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Systemiq, University of Leeds, University of Oxford, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Common Seas. — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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