The amount of plastic trash that flows into the oceans every year is expected to nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons.
That single, incomprehensibly large statistic is at the center of a new two-year research project that both illuminates the failure of the worldwide campaign to curb plastic pollution and prescribes an ambitious plan for reducing much of that flow into the seas.
No one knows for certain how much plastic, which is virtually indestructible, has accumulated in the seas. The best guess, made in 2015, was about 150 million metric tons. Assuming things remain the same, the study estimates that accumulation will become 600 million metric tons by 2040.
The project, developed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, Ltd., a London-based environmental think tank, essentially calls for a wholesale remaking of the global plastics industry by shifting it to a circular economy that reuses and recycles. If such transformation occurs—and that’s a big if—Pew’s experts say the annual flow of plastic waste into the oceans could be reduced by 80 percent over the next two decades, all by using existing methods and technology. Even a five-year delay allows an additional 80 million metric tons of trash to slide offshore.
The cost of the overhaul runs to $600 billion. That’s $70 billion cheaper than proceeding through the next two decades business-as-usual, primarily because of the reduced use of virgin plastic. “System-wide problems demand system-wide change,” the Pew report says.
The outlines of the “Systems Change Scenario” are contained in both a book-length report released by Pew and a peer-reviewed scientific paper in the journal Science, both published today. Pew notes that achieving near-zero plastic waste into the seas requires new technology, significant spending, and “moonshot ambitions,” among other factors.
White papers come and go. What sets the Pew report apart is that it arrives at a critical moment in the campaign to rein in plastic waste. In just five short years, ocean plastic pollution rocketed to the top tier of global environmental causes, setting in motion myriad campaigns in nearly every nation on Earth to scale back the use of disposable plastics. Meanwhile, on another track, global plastic production is on pace to increase 40 percent by 2030, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested in new plastic production plants, locking in the status quo, according to the report.
As plastic flows into the seas and more plastic is made, it also has become increasingly clear that environmental campaigns are not making enough progress. If all industry and government pledges to curtail plastic waste are achieved by 2040, Pew found they’d likely reduce annual leakage into the seas by just a tiny fraction.
“We are at a fork in the road,” says Nicholas Mallos, who oversees the Ocean Conservancy’s marine debris program and was not involved in the Pew project. “Industry has been saying, ‘We’re going to do better.’ Governments have taken steps. To the world, this will be the first eye-opening that our current efforts alone will not be enough. The global trajectory is going in the wrong direction. Clearly, we need a fundamental rethinking of our relationship with this material.”
The search for hard economic data
Pew launched the research in 2018, after concluding that the missing piece of the plastics movement was economic data to guide industry decision-making, says Simon Reddy, who directs Pew’s ocean plastics and coastal wetlands programs. Without hard numbers, there wasn’t enough evidence or information for businesses to make informed choices. “We have to make decisions about what we want the future of the planet to look like,” Reddy says. “But we found we couldn’t put numbers behind things. We were data-poor.”
To fill in the picture, the team used a first-of-its-kind economic model, created by the University of Oxford in the U.K., to come up with the calculations and projections. Reddy says the model provides a “roadmap” for reducing plastic waste in various locales. An online version of the model went live today, allowing governments and businesses to plug in waste data and evaluate trade-offs and solutions tailored to local conditions.
The team eventually numbered more than a hundred experts, and included collaborations with the University of Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Common Seas, all in the U.K.
The model analyzes costs and measures plastic leakage into the sea when various scenarios, involving plastic use are employed. For example, use of plastic can be cut by 47 percent by increasing the use of other solutions, including: elimination of unnecessary plastics and reusing containers (30 percent); composting and substitution of different materials, such as swapping filmy shopping bags for paper bags (17 percent).
“The writing is on the wall,” says Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit working to transition global industries to an economy that reuses products and materials. “We actually have to leave the oil in the ground and keep the flow of existing polymers in the system and innovate.”
How plastic waste engulfed the world
Though we don’t know exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, we do know more about what drives the growth of plastic waste. Global population growth and the increasing plastic production account for part of it. Per capita use is on the rise, especially in developing nations—India, for example—with an expanding middle class and low rates of garbage collection. Finally, cheap virgin plastic enables a shift into production of an increasing number of low-value plastic products that are not recyclable, adding to the glut of plastics that go uncollected.
Martin Stuchtey, SYSTEMIQ’s co-founder and managing partner, says he hopes the project will bring clarity to the global debate about solutions, which are often contradictory, unworkable, or unsustainable. For example, incineration and open burning of plastic are on the rise, and if nothing changes, could increase from 49 million metric tons in 2016 to 133 million metric tons in 2040.
Recycling is one of the most effective means of reducing the use of virgin plastic, but first it has to be collected, and today two billion people lack access to waste collection systems. By 2040 that number will double to four billion, mostly in rural areas in middle- and low-income countries. Closing the collection gap and connecting them to a garbage system, Pew found, would require connecting 500,000 people a day, every day, between now and 2040. That is an inconceivable prospect, but was included in the report to convey the enormity of the problems involved in containing waste on a global scale.
“Good luck with that,” says Yoni Shiran, a SYSTEMIQ project manager and one of the co-authors of the Science paper. “If that’s not going to happen, the solution is to come up with a wiser system.”
The coronavirus pandemic has added to the disarray. Falling oil prices have made production of virgin plastic cheaper than ever. Demand for consumer goods sheathed in disposable, single-use plastic has soared as shoppers seek protection from the virus. Still, Stuchtey sees a silver lining. Before the pandemic, industry resisters argued that systemic change was too big, too difficult, too expensive, and time-consuming to pull off. COVID-19 put the lie to those arguments after shortages of toilet paper and other goods scrambled the supply system and upended shipping lines.
“We see now how fast supply chains really can change and be reconfigured, and we’re starting to see disbelief turn into belief,” Stuchtey says.
Winning hearts and minds
Winnie Lau, a senior manager at Pew who has overseen the project, says she’s unconcerned about industry titans who will resist. “I don’t expect that no matter how amazing our results are that we will change everyone’s heart. Our aim is to change key players’ hearts and they will lead and set the stage for new standards for how businesses operate, and we’ll go from there.”
To that end, Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, was among the dignitaries at today’s celebration in London of the project’s completion. Last year, the giant consumer goods company pledged to cut its use of virgin plastics by half and help collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells. It’s a start.