Even immediate, significant efforts to reduce plastic pollution could leave Earth with 710 million metric tons by 2040, modeling suggests

July 23, 2020

Immediate and globally coordinated action to limit plastic consumption and waste could reduce the rate of plastic pollution by nearly 80% over the next two decades, according to a new modeling report. However, even if such a “best-case scenario” came to pass, the researchers estimate that roughly 710 million metric tons 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. 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. Thus, plastic pollution of all types and sizes has steadily accumulated in environments spanning the ocean’s deepest regions to the troposphere’s heights, even making its way into the living animals that occupy the spaces between. Despite the growing awareness of the magnitude and scope of our global plastic waste problem, a global evidence-based strategy that includes practical and measurable interventions aimed at reducing the problem does not yet exist. According to Winnie Lau and colleagues, designing such a strategy requires an understanding of both the mitigation potential of different solutions and a collective global effort. To evaluate mitigation potential under different intervention scenarios, Lau et al. developed a model to assess the global plastic cycle – from production to waste – for five different pollution intervention scenarios implemented between 2016 and 2040. The authors discovered that there is no single “silver bullet” solution, such as scaling-up plastic waste collection and recycling. 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. While the findings suggest globally implementing all feasible interventions could reduce plastic pollution in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems by 78% relative to “business as usual” in 2040, they also show that environmental plastic will continue to increase significantly throughout the foreseeable future regardless. Substantial commitments to improve this picture are required by businesses, governments and the international community, the authors say.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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