The study, carried out by a group of international researchers and published Thursday in the journal Science, found that even in the “best-case scenario” where the amount of plastic pollution was reduced by 80% by 2040, there would still be a massive increase -up of accumulated plastic.
“The biggest advantage of our work is that if we do nothing, the problem of plastic pollution will become unmanageable. Doing nothing is not an option, said Dr. Winnie Lau, study co-author and senior director of Pew’s Preventing Ocean Plastics Campaign.
Lau called their findings “bad news, good news” because, as the problem of plastic pollution worsens, we have all the knowledge, the technology and the tools to make a huge dent.
The team found that a serious step up in global efforts could reduce plastic pollution by 40% from 2016 levels, or 78% from a “business as usual” model by 2040.
Rapid growth in plastic production, spurred by an increase in single-use plastics and a culture of “disposable” has exacerbated the problem, according to the report. Meanwhile, waste management systems in countries around the world lack the capacity to dispose of or recycle plastic waste safely.
Dr James Palardy, co-author of the report and director of Pew’s conservation science program, said the true cost of plastic pollution to human health and the environment – and of doing nothing to reduce it – is largely unknown, but waiting to find out how it affects us is not the answer.
“Do we really want to be guinea pigs for a world experience? ” he said.
To avoid a plastic stack of more than 710 million metric tons (782 US tons) by 2040, the team said coordinated global action is needed. This means reducing plastic consumption, increasing plastic reuse rates, improving waste collection and recycling, and expanding safe disposal systems.
And everyone must do their part.
“It’s not a problem for developing countries, it’s a problem everyone has to solve,” said Palardy.
The team set out to find solutions to solve plastic pollution. They created a model that mapped the entire global plastic system – from production to waste – and developed five scenarios to estimate reductions in plastic pollution between 2016 and 2040.
They found that there were no quick fixes to reducing global plastic pollution.
Instead, a change is needed across the entire supply chain, they said, from manufacturing plastics to pre-consumer (so-called upstream) and post-use (recycling and reuse) to stop the spread of plastic pollution in the environment.
“There is a role for everyone and every sector. We can only solve this problem if everyone does the right thing, ”Lau said.
Palardy said their research has shown that implementing the best-case scenario – where 80% of plastic pollution is reduced by 2040 – does not come with big costs.
“It actually saved governments money to implement this,” he said. The real challenge, he said, would be “how to show the world that this is a more appropriate solution, it’s better for the environment, it’s better for taxpayers, it’s better for virtually everything. “.
One of the main conclusions of the study is that poor waste management was not necessarily an issue of recycling capacity, landfill space or incinerators, but the bottleneck came from the collection gap. .
“There are currently billions of people without collection services. When some groups say we can get by, you can’t recycle something that you haven’t collected. You can’t dispose of something that you haven’t collected, ”Lau said.
The team noted that in many middle-income countries, such as India, informal workers and waste pickers made a living from collecting plastics and their work was a key part of being able to address this collection deficit. Often these workers have no legal or formal recognition and no protection.
Highlighting how vital they are to this sector, the authors said it will hopefully get them into the part of the economy where their contribution is recognized.
The team’s findings come from the fact that the waste of Covid-19 – PPE, masks, gloves, bottles of hand sanitizer and discarded take-out boxes – ended up in landfills or in our oceans.
In late February, the Hong Kong-based organization OceansAsia reported finding “masses of surgical masks washed up on the shore” in the Soko Islands.
Gary Stokes, director of operations at OceansAsia, who was not involved in the science report, said the current efforts we are seeing, such as beach clean-ups, are good, but the source of plastic needs to be turned off. .
“You go into a bathroom and the tub is overflowing, do you take a mop or turn off the faucet?” ” he said. “The beach cleaning is in progress and is wiping the floor while the tap is still open. As good as they are, you have to turn off the source. ”
One of the biggest challenges in changing our plastic habits is helping people connect the dots between the plastics they consume and the pollution on our beaches and seas. Plastic takes years – sometimes hundreds of years – to break down.
Entering schools to raise awareness, Stokes said he used the example of 16th century playwright William Shakespeare, claiming that “if he had had a cup with a straw from 7/11 at that time, the plastic would still be there now ”.
“And that’s really pretty scary,” he says.
Because plastic is so cheap, there is a need to make alternatives to plastics economically viable so that people start to take them seriously.
“I think that’s the culmination of yes, we have the technology, we just need the will to want to do it,” Stokes said.