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Current and planned efforts to reduce waste will reduce the volume of plastics by only about 7%, say the researchers
Plastic debris flowing into the oceans is expected to triple in volume over the next 20 years, while efforts to stem the tide so far have barely made a dent in the debris tsunami, according to the research.
Governments could make drastic cuts to the flow of plastic into the oceans through measures such as restricting the sale and use of plastic materials, and demanding alternatives, but even if all the most likely measures are taken, it would only reduce waste. to just under half current levels, according to analysis.
According to previous estimates, the amount of plastic that reaches the oceans each year is about 8 million tons, but the true figure is much higher, at about 11 million tons, according to the article published in the journal Science.
If current trends continue, the amount of plastic waste polluting the oceans will grow to 29 million tons a year by 2040, the equivalent of 50 kg for every meter of coastline in the world.
All efforts made and announced so far to reduce plastic waste, by governments and businesses, will reduce that projected volume by just 7% by 2040.
The findings, in one of the most comprehensive assessments to date of the plastic waste problem, reveal the devastating impact of our reliance on plastic, especially the film and single-use plastics used for packaging. Stopping the flow is crucial because once the plastic is in the ocean, most of it stays there forever, breaking down into microplastics that cause other problems, and efforts to clean up waste from the oceans have so far had little impact.
Tighter measures would lead to a drastic reduction in waste, according to the researchers. These include improving waste collection, particularly in the developing world, and recycling more waste, as well as investing in alternative materials and better product design to reduce the amount of plastic used.
Such measures would require an investment of around $ 150 billion globally over the next five years, but would generate $ 70 billion in savings compared to the $ 670 billion cost to governments of inefficient waste management between now. and 2040, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic by about a quarter and creating up to 700,000 jobs.
Despite growing public awareness of the plastic problem in the past five years, attempts to reduce waste through plastic bag charges and bans on certain forms of microplastics have so far had little impact, he said. Simon Reddy, international environmental director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, who led the research. “All the initiatives to date make very little difference. There is no silver bullet, there is no solution that can simply be applied: many policies are needed. It needs innovation and systems change ”.
Such a change will require governments to review their waste systems in particular, but also to look for ways to engineer plastic waste from products. But urgent action was needed, he said, as once the plastic reached the sea it was almost impossible to get it out again.
"That there will probably be three times more plastic waste by 2040 is a shocking revelation," he said.
Reddy called on governments and investors to halt the planned expansion of plastic production. “Without this, supplying large quantities of cheap virgin plastic to the market can undermine reduction and substitution efforts and threaten the economic viability of recycling, while making it even more difficult to close the collection gap [between produced waste and waste collected for disposal] ”.
Governments should also create incentives for companies to adopt new models, such as reuse and recharge systems, he urged. "That would level the playing field, where currently virgin plastic feedstock has a cost advantage over recycled materials."
New design standards and better collection systems would also be needed in low- and middle-income countries.
Waste management is an area often neglected for governments in developing countries, where it is often left to an informal economy of recyclers, who can suffer from exposure to pollutants and other hazards. Recyclers are generally paid by the weight of the material they collect, making it more difficult to collect some of the most harmful plastic products that make it to the ocean, such as thin-film material.
Although recyclers and other workers in informal waste management systems are responsible for approximately 60% of global plastics recycling, "their contribution to preventing plastic pollution in the oceans has gone unnoticed and underpaid," said Reddy. .
Alice Horton, a scientist at the UK's National Oceanography Center, who was not involved in the research, said reducing plastic waste was profitable. "Even the most difficult management approaches proposed in the document will still lead to a cumulative increase in plastic pollution in the environment," he said. “Urgent and extensive interventions are needed in the production and management of plastic waste. Despite the scale and likely costs of such interventions, a revision of this system is likely to be more economically viable than the current scenario, due to the lower need for the production of new material ”.
Stephen Fletcher, a professor of ocean policy at the University of Portsmouth, who was also not involved in the research, said companies would have to be incorporated to find a viable solution. "The key message of this document is that even with major changes in the way plastics are produced, used, reused and disposed of, plastic pollution on land and in the ocean is here to stay," he said.
The overhaul of global plastic and waste management systems would yield about 18% savings compared to business as usual for taxpayers and governments, he noted, but many of the required actions would have to be taken by companies and their costs and incentives would have to be taken into account.
Fletcher said: "The extent to which such a change in the global plastics economy is realistic is debatable, but the paper shows that the need for such a change is urgent."
The Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq, a consultancy, led the research, with collaboration from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Common Seas charities, academics from the University of Oxford and the University of Leeds, and a panel of 17 global experts.
The estimates do not take into account any potential increase in the volume of plastic waste as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.