Stop Polluting, or There Will Be More Plastic Than Fish in the Ocean by 2050
The report, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, was released Tuesday, in conjunction with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“Each year, at least eight million tons of plastics leak into the ocean—which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute,” the authors wrote. “If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.”
Today, there are some 150 million tons of plastic in the ocean, most of it used in packaging, according to the 118-page paper.
“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight),” it said.
The report did not take into account dwindling fish stocks around the world.
Why so much plastic? Because governments, industries, and consumers are addicted to the stuff.
“Their use has increased 20-fold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years,” the study found. “Today nearly everyone, everywhere, every day comes into contact with plastics—especially plastic packaging, the focus of this report.”
Most plastic packaging is used once and discarded. Nearly one-third of it is not even collected for disposal, “generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure,” according to the report.
The economic cost of all that pollution, along with the greenhouse gases emitted in the making of plastic packaging, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually, more than the total combined profits of the plastic packaging industry.
Most plastics are made from petroleum. By 2050, plastic will consume 20 percent of global oil production, while manufacturing emissions will eat up 15 percent of the world’s annual carbon budget, the report said.
There is no question that plastics in the oceans are killing marine life. A study published last week identified the 20 worst types of plastic—including fishing gear, bags, bottle caps, utensils, cigarette butts, food packaging, and straws—for marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds.
Another study, published in December, found that somewhere between 15 trillion and 51 trillion pieces of plastic litter the world’s oceans—three to 10 times more than scientists had estimated.
It may be garbage, but it is surprisingly valuable, providing a strong economic incentive for societies to keep it out of the oceans through enhanced recycling and reuse.
“After a short first-use cycle, 95 percent of plastic packaging material value, or $80–$120 billion annually, is lost to the economy,” the Davos report said.
Much of that material can and should be returned to what is called the “circular economy,” which the U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines as “designing products that can be 'made to be made again' and powering the system with renewable energy” to build a “restorative economy.”
When it comes to reducing plastic pollution, “systemic changes will require major collaboration efforts between all stakeholders across the global plastics value chain,” the report said, including consumer-goods companies, plastic manufacturers, businesses that collect, sort, and reprocess plastic, policy makers, cities, and nonprofit groups.
The use of plastic is unlikely to decline dramatically, the report said, making recycling all the more important. Today, just 14 percent of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling, compared with 58 percent of all paper and 70 percent to 90 percent of iron and steel.
The authors proposed a “Global Plastics Protocol” to standardize plastic production and handling. “It could provide guidance on design, labelling, marking, infrastructure and secondary markets,” they wrote, to “radically increase the economics, quality and uptake of recycling.”
The report also called for a sharp increase in reusable packaging and compostable, marine biodegradable, and other “bio-benign” plastics, as well as improved collection, storage, and reprocessing to prevent leakage into the ocean, where plastic can float “for centuries.”
But Marcus Eriksen, director of research at 5 Gyres, a Los Angeles–based group that fights ocean plastic, said the new report only pays “lip service” to what is needed: reducing the amount of plastic that is produced for packaging, especially single-use packaging.
Eriksen said that new policies must be enacted to force companies to rethink their “upstream design”—meaning before their products reach consumers—rather than focusing on recovery and recycling after those products are used.
“Recycling is easy. It’s recovery that’s the sticking point,” Eriksen said. “There are very few efficient recovery systems for single-use packaging.” Most plastic bags are not recovered, for example, while the recovery rate for plastic straws “is almost zero,” Eriksen said. “We don’t get them back.”
Producers must be held responsible for the “full life cycle of their products,” he said. “And that requires the courage to end some throwaway designs. If industry can do that without legislation forcing them to, then I am singing in the streets. But the industry won’t do that on their own.”