The report, released Tuesday, warns that if we keep producing (and failing to properly dispose of) plastics at current rates, plastic waste in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound by 2050, posing a dire threat to the environment, marine life, and even human health.
According to the report, which is based on an analysis of over 200 previous studies and interviews with more than 180 experts in the field, worldwide use of plastic has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years, and it is expected to double again in the next 20 years. By 2050, we’ll be making more than three times as much plastic stuff as we did in 2014. Meanwhile, humans do a terrible job of making sure those products are reused or otherwise disposed of: a whopping 32 percent of all plastics produced worldwide escape collection systems, only to wind up floating in the sea or the stomach of some unsuspecting bird. That adds up to about 8 million metric tons of plastic going into the ocean each year — the equivalent of a dump truck of plastic trash every minute.
If we continue on our current trajectory, the amount of plastic waste being dumped into the oceans will have grown to two dump trucks a minute by 2030, and four a minute by 2050 — at which time, by weight, there will be as much plastic waste in the oceans as fish.
“The best research currently available estimates that there are over 150 million tonnes (165 million tons) of plastics in the ocean today,” the report reads. “In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne (1.1 tons) of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).”
Economic & Environmental Damage
Described as the “ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy,” plastic is one of the world’s most popular and widely used materials because of its remarkable functionality and low production costs. But it’s also among the most wasteful materials in use today.
Most plastic packaging is used only once, the report found. After a short first-use cycle, 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. Plastics also generate huge negative externalities by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean, clogging urban infrastructure, and otherwise disrupting economic activity through environmental degradation. Once it gets washed into waterways, the damage caused by the presence of plastics costs about $13 billion annually in losses for the tourism, shipping and fishing industries alone. Plastic trash also disrupts marine ecosystems and threatens food security for people who depend on subsistence fishing.
“The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually – exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool,” the report says.
These indirect costs are expected to increase sharply with the global rise in the use of plastic products. Currently, the production of plastic accounts for 6 percent of global oil consumption, but that number is projected to hit 20 percent in 2050. And while plastic production comprises only one percent of the global carbon budget today (the total amount of carbon dioxide the world can pump into the atmosphere while still having a chance of preventing global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius), the report says we’ll be spending 15 percent of our carbon budget on soda bottles, plastic grocery bags and the like by 2050.
Plastic that pollutes our oceans and waterways has severe impacts on the health of marine ecosystems. Seabirds, whales, sea turtles and other marine life are eating plastic pollution in the water and dying from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation. Endangered wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are among the nearly 300 species that are known to eat and get caught in plastic litter.
But it’s not just ocean life that is endangered — when we damage our water systems, we’re also putting our own well-being at risk.
As plastic debris floats in the seawater, it absorbs dangerous pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and dichlorodiphenyltrichloro ethane (DDT) and its metabolites (DDTs), which then enter the food supply through accidental marine ingestion. Additionally, as plastics break apart in the ocean, they release potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), which can then enter the food and water supply. When fish and other marine species mistake the plastic items for food, they ingest the particles and pass toxic chemicals through the food chain and ultimately to our dinner plates. Included among these toxic byproducts are chemicals known to have carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting effects.
“While scientific evidence on the exact implications is not always conclusive, especially due to the difficulty of assessing complex long-term exposure and compounding effects, there are sufficient indications that warrant further research and accelerated action [to protect human health]”, the report says.
Room for Improvement
The report, titled “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics,” does offer hope that it’s not too late to mitigate some of these adverse effects.
Using a series of computer models, researchers determined that utilizing trash collecting devices near coasts would help remove approximately 31 percent of microplastics, which stem from the breakdown of larger plastic items. Moreover, by redesigning materials and developing new technologies, the research shows it is possible to nearly eradicate plastic waste.
Achieving such systemic change, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said in a statement, will “require major collaboration,” including from consumer goods companies, plastics manufacturers, businesses involved in collection and recycling and policymakers.
“This report demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem,” Dominic Waughray of the World Economic Forum said in a statement, “and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy.”
Today, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, according to the World Economic Forum. In comparison, the global recycling rate for paper is 58 percent, while that of iron and steel is 70 percent to 90 percent.
Clearly, there’s room for improvement.