Even significant efforts to reduce pollution could leave world with 710 million tonnes of plastic by 2040: Study

Over 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic pollution will end up on land or in water bodies by 2040 unless measures are taken, warn scientists

                            Even significant efforts to reduce pollution could leave world with 710 million tonnes of plastic by 2040: Study
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Plastic pollution is a pervasive and growing problem. Researchers now estimate that more than 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic will be dumped on land and in the oceans over the period from 2016 to 2040 unless the world acts now. The team of 17 global experts has developed a computer model to track the stocks and flows of plastic around the world. Their analysis suggests that even with immediate and concerted efforts, 710 million tonnes of plastic waste will be discarded into the environment -- 460 million tonnes on land and 250 million tonnes in watercourses.

“Immediate and globally coordinated action to limit plastic consumption and waste could reduce the rate of plastic pollution by 78% over the next two decades, according to a new modeling report. However, even if such a ‘best-case scenario’ came to pass, we estimate that roughly 710 million tonnes of plastic will ultimately find its way into the environment by 2040. The study reveals an urgent need for comprehensive, coordinated strategies to better manage the plastic cycle at the global level,” write authors in the report published in Science.

Plastic pollution is ubiquitous. In recent decades, rapid production and a sharp increase in “single-use” plastic products and their added waste have rendered waste management systems worldwide insufficient in their ability to safely dispose of and recycle waste plastic. While the study's primary focus was to investigate how plastic reached the oceans, it has also revealed that each year, nearly 30 million tonnes are dumped on land and nearly 50 million tonnes are burned in the open, in addition to the 11 million tonnes ending up in the seas.

The level of pollution is predicted to rise on an annual basis. The researchers estimate that plastic waste flowing into the seas each year could more than double by 2040. In 2040, 133 million tonnes will be burnt and 77 million tonnes dumped on land, with 29 million tonnes ending up in the oceans. That will happen even if governments act on their commitments to reduce plastic pollution, warns the team.

Progress has been made in addressing the global plastic challenge, but the report finds that current commitments by government and industry will reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean by just 7% by 2040. The scientists say there is no “single magic bullet” to reduce plastic pollution in the seas, and call for a range of interventions from industry and governments which they say are achievable. “The most important thing we found out is that there is no single response to this problem. We can’t simply recycle our way out of this mess we’re making. Plastic pollution is everywhere, but it’s most acute in places where there is no waste collection. The single biggest thing we can do is to collect the waste of the billions of people who are not currently connected to any kind of waste collection system. Our model estimates that for every tonne of waste collected, we can stop 0.18 tonnes from getting into the sea, which turns into a massive number when you scale it up to global level,” study author Ed Cook told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). 

Cook, a research fellow at the School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds, explains that local governments struggle with competing priorities to provide healthcare, education, and other basic services, so “we can’t simply tell them to get on with it and walk away.” “We need to look at the whole system, and that’s what our model found out. This means looking at everything, integrating the informal recycling sector into local waste management plans, improving the economics of recycling, and finding ways to reduce the amount of plastic in places where it is at risk of entering the natural environment. But it’s not just debris entering the sea, we need to sort out open burning as well; something that is particularly acute in India. Open burning actually reduces plastic pollution on land and in the sea, but it produces all sorts of hazardous emissions that make people ill and contribute to global warming. So we need to tackle all of these issues rather than focussing on one area,” Cook told MEAWW.

We cannot simply recycle our way out of this mess we are making, warns study author Ed Cook.
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The project was funded by the US philanthropic organization, The Pew Charitable Trusts. The research was conducted by four key institutions: The Pew Charitable Trusts, SYSTEMIQ, University of Leeds and University of Oxford.

The scale of the problem

The researchers estimate that around 95% of aggregate plastic packaging is used just once before it becomes waste. The analysis showed that the biggest source of plastic pollution was uncollected solid municipal waste, a lot of it from households.

Currently, around a quarter of all plastic waste is not collected, leaving individuals to dispose of it themselves. By 2040, a third of all plastic waste generated will be uncollected. That will amount to 143 million tonnes a year. As the scientists modeled the flows of waste plastics through the economy, they identified a hidden aspect to the problem -- the vast quantities of plastic waste being openly burnt. While burning reduces the amount of waste being discarded onto land and into the seas, it generates potentially toxic fumes and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Without action, the computer modeling estimates that approximately two-and-a-quarter-billion-tonnes of plastic waste will be openly burned between 2016 and 2040, which is more than twice the amount that is projected to be dumped on land and into the aquatic environment. “Modern incinerators with air pollution control technology, emit very few hazardous substances. But with open burning, the combustion is often incomplete, and all sorts of potentially toxic emissions are released, which can result in a range of negative health outcomes. Those obnoxious substances are being breathed in by people who are working with waste and also in the communities that live nearby,” explains Cook.

Without action, the study estimates that approximately two-and-a-quarter-billion-tonnes of plastic waste will be openly burned between 2016 and 2040, which is over twice the amount that is projected to be dumped on land and into the aquatic environment. (Getty Images)

Proposed solutions

Improving waste collection services would be the single most influential factor in reducing pollution, says the team. According to the UN's Global Waste Management Outlook, around two billion people in the world do not have access to a waste collection service, and that is expected to grow to four billion people by 2040, shows analysis. 

The lack of a formal waste collection service has resulted in the growth of an informal waste collection system made up of waste pickers. A conservative estimate indicates that there are at least 11 million waste pickers worldwide. This marginalized sector makes a living sifting through uncollected waste, looking for material that they can sell-on for recycling, write authors. It is believed they collect about 58% of all plastic material that is recycled worldwide, more than all the formal authorities put together, they add. But despite playing a major role in reducing global plastic waste, many waste pickers lack basic employment rights or safe working conditions.

“Waste pickers are the unsung heroes of recycling in the Global South, without whom the mass of plastic entering the aquatic environment would be considerably greater. Thus, it is critical that supportive policies are implemented to eliminate the health and safety challenges and wider societal challenges associated with their activities,” says Dr Costas Velis, lead investigator from Leeds.

The scientists conclude that there is no one solution that would reduce the flow of plastic waste into the oceans. Instead, a complete system-level change in the global plastics supply chain, including a host of pre- and post-consumer interventions, is needed to most appreciably reduce the flow of plastic pollution into the environment, they emphasize.

The team used the computer model to investigate the effectiveness of various interventions involving different scenarios, which ranged from business as usual to improving levels of recycling or finding alternatives to plastics to a complete overhaul of the system. None of the solutions on their own was sufficient. Brought together, though, they could reduce plastic flow into the oceans by close to 80% of the level projected for 2040. The authors say it can be achieved using existing technology and know-how, by reducing growth in plastic production and consumption to avoid nearly one-third of projected plastic waste generation, substituting plastic with paper and compostable materials, and designing products and packaging for recycling. Expanding waste collection rates in middle/low-income countries to around 90% in all urban areas and around 50% in rural areas and support the informal collection sector, building facilities to dispose of the 23% of the plastic that cannot be recycled economically, as a transitional measure, and reducing plastic waste exports are other recommendations. 

According to scientists, the focus in high-income countries should be to decrease plastic consumption, improve product design, and recycling. In low-to-middle income economies, the push should be on improving waste collection and investing in sorting and recycling, they suggest. “The interventions explored here are all achievable using existing and already mature technologies. The suite of approaches we have proposed is already within our capability, but it requires the political, societal, and corporate will to achieve it. Although the report looks at the flows of plastic waste into the oceans, the benefits will extend far beyond the marine environment,” says Cook.

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