According to a new report published in the journal Science, a staggering 1.3 billion metric tons of plastic will have ended up in our environment by 2040. That represents a tripling of the annual flow of plastic into the ocean. However, the study by Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ also identifies solutions that could reduce this volume by more than 80% using technologies that are currently available.
The study found that if no action is taken to address plastic production and consumption, the 11 million metric tons currently entering the ocean annually would grow to 29 million metric tons over the next two decades. The problem has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen single-use plastic consumption increase, according to the International Solid Waste Association.
The unique model developed by the researchers forecasts future plastic pollution based on data tracking the production, use and disposal of plastic around the world. By tweaking the model—to increase recycling, reduce production, and replace plastic with other materials—the scientists could quantify how different interventions would alter the projection. A “business-as-usual” scenario produces the 1.3 billion ton figure.
The study suggests that the amount of plastic that goes into the ocean can be reduced by 80% by putting various solutions in place, including reducing growth in plastic production and consumption, substituting plastic with paper and compostable materials, designing products and packaging for recycling, expanding waste collection rates in middle- and low-income countries, building facilities to dispose of plastic that cannot be recycled economically, and reducing plastic waste exports. The model showed that even in the best case scenario, some 710 million extra metric tons of plastic waste would still enter the environment in the next 20 years.
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