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.

The National Socio-Ecological Synthesis Centre (SESYNC) Pursuit grant bought together some of the leading experts on plastic pollution from around the world. Over the last 2 years we have been working on building a mathematical model to evaluate future scenarios of plastic emissions. The key aim was 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 on September 18th.

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, how much effort 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 Plastic Pollution Emissions Group found that 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.