Even immediate efforts to reduce plastic pollution could leave Earth with 698 million tons (710 million metric tonnes) of waste by 2040, scientists estimate.
Immediate and globally coordinated action to limit plastic consumption and waste could reduce the rate of plastic pollution by nearly 80 per cent by 2040.
However, even if such a ‘best-case scenario’ came to pass, 698 million tons will find its way into the environment by 2040 – 452 million on land and 246 million in watercourses.
And an even more shocking amount – 1.27 billion tons – of plastic will be dumped on land and in oceans up to 2040 without substantial and meaningful policy action.
The figures are from 17 global experts who have developed a computer model to track the stocks and flows of plastic around the world.
1.27 billion tons of plastic will be dumped on land and in the oceans over the period from 2016 to 2040 unless the world acts, say a team of 17 global experts who have developed a computer model to track the stocks and flows of plastic around the world
The amount of plastic entering the ocean each year would nearly triple, from 10.8 million tons to 28.5 million metric tons over the next 20 years, equivalent to nearly 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of plastic on each metre of coastline worldwide, they say.
Plastic waste is also being openly burnt, which reduces the amount of waste being discarded but can release toxic fumes and greenhouse gas emissions, they warn.
Improving waste collection services would be the single most influential factor in reducing pollution but a ‘system-level change’ in the global plastics supply chain is also needed to avoid the 700-million-ton-prediction becoming a reality.
‘This scientific inquiry has for the first time given us a comprehensive insight into the staggering amounts of plastic waste that are being dumped into the world’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems,’ said the study’s lead author, Dr Costas Velis at the University of Leeds.
‘We now have a much clearer picture of the sources of the pollution and where it eventually ends up.’
In recent decades, rapid production and a sharp increase in single-use plastic products have overwhelmed waste management systems worldwide.
Plastic pollution of all types and sizes has therefore steadily accumulated in multiple environments, including watercourses, and eventually found its way into the open oceans.
Despite the growing awareness of the magnitude and scope of our global plastic waste problem, ‘practical and measurable interventions’ aimed at reducing the problem does not yet exist, according to the research team.
There is a credible pathway to significantly reduce ocean plastic flow into the ocean, but only if all solutions are implemented. This figure shows the share of treatment options for the plastic that enters the system over time. Any plastic that enters the system has a single fate or colour-coded ‘wedge’. The numbers include those above and below 0.19 inches (5mm) in diameter, known as macroplastic and microplastic, respectively
They developed a model to assess the global plastic cycle – from production to waste – for five different pollution intervention scenarios implemented between 2016 and 2040.
Plastic waste flowing into the seas each year could nearly triple by 2040, they found, and the level of pollution is predicted to rise on an annual basis.
Currently, nearly 30 million tons of plastic is dumped on land and nearly 50 million tons is burnt in the open annually – in addition to the 10.8 million tons ending up in the seas.
The biggest source of plastic pollution is uncollected solid municipal waste and a lot of it is from households, which relentlessly fill bin bags with food packaging on a weekly basis.
However, these figures could rise to 75.7 million tons dumped on land, 130.8 million tons being openly burnt and 28.5 million tons ending up in the oceans in 2040.
Scarily, this will happen even if governments act on their commitments to reduce plastic pollution, showing that more systemic changes are needed.
‘Unless the world acts, we estimate more than 1.3 billion tonnes [1.27 billion imperial tons] of plastic pollution will end up on land or in water bodies by 2040,’ said Dr Velis.
‘Enormous as that figure is, it could be even bigger if it were not for the fact that a vast quantity of waste is openly burned – but that burning also carries a major environmental cost.’
Open dump site and open burning waste dump Thilafushi, an artificial island in the Indian Ocean where large amount of unsegregated waste is dumped every day. Open burning releases potentially toxic emissions, poisoning the planet and potentially causing negative health outcomes for humans and animals
Without action, the computer modelling estimates that approximately 2.2 billion tons of plastic waste will be openly burnt between 2016 and 2040.
This 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 open burning releases potentially toxic emissions, poisoning the planet and potentially causing negative health outcomes for humans and animals.
‘Obnoxious substances are being breathed in by people who are working with waste and also in the communities that live nearby,’ said Ed Cook at the University of Leeds and one of the scientists involved in the study.
‘Burning is a double-edged sword – it reduces the amount of plastic that could eventually end up in the seas and on land but it also poses many other environmental problems, including a significant contribution to global warming.’
The authors discovered that there is no single ‘silver bullet’ solution, such as scaling-up plastic waste collection and recycling, and they instead call for ‘a complete system-level change’ in the global plastics supply chain.
Depressingly, environmental plastic will ‘continue to increase significantly throughout the foreseeable future’ regardless of any immediate changes.
Substantial commitments to improve this picture are required by businesses, governments and the international community, the authors say.
The analysis has been supported by US public policy non-profit The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, a company that partners with businesses and to make economic systems sustainable.
HOW TO AVOID A 700-MILLION-TON PLASTIC WASTE PILE BY 2040
Around 95 percent of aggregate plastic packaging is used just once before it becomes waste.
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, which will amount to 147 million tons a year.
The study authors recommend eight steps to enable a ‘system-level change’ in the global plastics supply change and avoid a 700-million-ton plastic dump.
Reduce growth in plastic consumption to avoid nearly one-third of projected plastic waste generation by 2040.
Substitute plastic with paper and compostable materials, switching one sixth of projected plastic waste generation by 2040.
Design products and packaging for recycling to expand the share of economically recyclable plastic from and estimated 22 per cent today to 54 per cent by 2040.
4. Scale-up collection
Scale-up collection rates in middle to low income countries to at least 90 per cent in urban areas and 50 per cent in rural areas by 2040.
5. Double mechanical recycling
Double mechanical recycling capacity globally to 85 million tons per year by 2040. Mechanical recycling refers to operations that aim to recover plastics via mechanical processes (grinding, washing, separating, drying, re-granulating and compounding).
6. Develop plastic-to plastic conversion
Develop plastic-to plastic conversion potentially to a global capacity of up to 13 million tons per year.
Dispose securely the 23 per cent of plastic that still cannot be economically recycled.
8. Reduce waste exports
Reduce waste exports into countries with low collection and high leakage rates by 90 per cent by 2040.
9. Reduce microplastic leakage
Reduce microplastic leakage by 1.8 million tons per year by 2040 through the rollout of known solutions for four microplastic sources – tyre dust, textiles, pellets and personal care products.
10. Reduce maritime sources
Reduce maritime sources of ocean plastic pollution such as from fishing and shipping.
Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts/SYSTEMIQ