In recent years, world leaders have taken steps to curb plastic pollution in the oceans, But a new study, published in Science on Thursday, says these measures are nowhere near enough to get the problem under control.
Every year, the petrochemical industry produces millions of tons of plastic, which gets made into everything from soda bottles and shopping bags to medical equipment and the laptop keys I’m typing on now. When we discard these items, a growing portion of that waste ends up in Earth’s oceans, rivers, and lakes, where it chokes turtles and birds, lets off endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals, and harms vital coral reef ecosystems.
The new study estimates that in 2016, 20 to 25 million tons of plastic waste ended up in the world’s waterways. That’s 11% of the waste generated globally that year, and that doesn’t even include additional pollution from microplastics, discarded fishing gear, or aquatic plastic pollution from the incineration of plastic waste. Without urgent action, that amount will only increase. Previous estimates show that global plastic production is on pace to double by 2040.
As awareness of this crisis has grown, civic leaders have taken steps to curb it, signing onto international United Nations treaties, passing national and statewide bans on some single-use plastic items, and banding together to promote more sustainable lifestyle choices and clean up beaches.
But when the authors assessed the expected impact of these and other efforts, they found they’re wholly insufficient to address the plastic apocalypse. They looked at commitments across 173 countries representing roughly 97% of the world’s population to lower plastic waste in the ocean by 2030. The authors assessed a wide range of data, including on the amount of waste people in individual countries generate, population growth estimates from the World Bank, and predicted increases in plastic production. From this, they were able to determine how much plastic pollution the world generates. Then, to estimate the amount of that pollution that gets into water, they created a computer model using a mapping tool.
“The basic premise is that if a piece of plastic is littered next to a river, there is a high probability that it will end up in that river, but as you move further away that probability rapidly decreases,” Stephanie Borrelle, the marine and Pacific regional coordinator for BirdLife International who led the study, wrote in an email.
Even when considering the commitments currently set by governments annual aquatic plastic pollution may more than double to reach up to 58.5 million tons by the end of this decade.
That’s not to say that these global commitments aren’t a good start — they just can’t keep up with the petrochemical industry’s growth plans. In addition to looking at the projected effects of existing global commitments, the team also examined how much plastic pollution would enter waterways under a “business as usual” scenario, where leaders don’t adhere to any of their commitments to curb plastic production or take any further actions. Under those circumstances, they expect that 99 million tons of plastic waste would get into oceans, lakes, and rivers in 2030 — far more than the predictions under current commitments.
Still, settling for current plans shouldn’t be an option. Plastic pollution is already taking a devastating toll on ecosystems around the world — we can’t afford to increase that impact.
“Every pound of plastic that enters water bodies is a problem,” Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and former Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator, who didn’t work on the study, said while praising the study. “Larger pieces of plastic, such as beverage bottles and plastic bags, will often break down into smaller pieces of plastic. Fish and wildlife eat the plastic, coral reefs are impacted and some of the affected surface water bodies are sources of drinking water for people around the world. Nothing good can come from this growing problem.”
In addition to chronicling the shortcomings, the study also offers another path forward. By upping commitments to curb plastic pollution using all three reduction strategies — waste reduction, waste management, and clean-up — the researchers chart out a path to reduce aquatic plastic pollution to 9 million tons annually, which is the estimated level of global marine plastic pollution in 2010.
The most effective of these strategies, Borrelle said, is the first: waste reduction. But the authors found that a more integrated approach is preferable to one that focuses on waste reduction alone.
“It is really important to note that we are going to have plastics for the foreseeable future, and that means that we need to use all of these actions, and [to] put a lot more effort in to stop plastics entering our freshwater and marine environments,” she said. “We are going to have to also improve waste management and unfortunately for as long as we use plastics, some will enter the environment, so clean up has to be a part of any strategy.”
Since richer countries produce more plastic waste than lower income ones, the study suggests that they should take on more ambitious reduction targets. It also calls for producers to pay for international pollution reduction schemes since they’re the cause of the issue in the first place and are sometimes subsidized by the public. In short, while it’s great that the past 10 years have seen a growing number of commitments from leaders to curb pollution, really fixing this problem will require much bigger changes.
“Fundamentally, the policies need to be turned upside down,” Borrelle said.