Since the beginning of the 20th century, the world has had a plastic solution. The material is cheap, easy to make and can be molded into just about any shape. It’s also impervious to water, which only enhances its versatility. But it is these same attributes that have given the world its plastic problem: This stuff isn’t going anywhere.
Last week, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and World Economic Forum released a report on the future of plastics. In the face of the sustainable and renewable energy transitions championed at COP21, the report calls for a new circular economy that adequately reintegrates plastic waste. The current state of plastic recycling does anything but.
The Plastic Isn’t Just Disappearing…
According to the report, of the 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging material created every year, 95 percent (representing $80-120 billion annually) is “lost to the economy” after a single, short-term use. While 14 percent of plastic packaging is actually collected for recycling, value losses related to sorting and reprocessing this plastic results in only five percent of the material being retained for subsequent use.
Meanwhile, 72 percent of plastic packaging is never recovered at all. Forty percent is dumped in landfills and the remaining chunk “leaks out of the collection system,” meaning it’s either not collected properly or illegally discarded.
And these statistics cover less than a third of total plastic production, which reached 311 million tonnes in 2014––20 times what it was half a century ago––and is expected to double in the next 20 years. Research by the 5 Gyres Institute has already revealed that much of this plastic is being flushed into the world’s waterways; there are about 43,000 plastic particles per square kilometer in the Great Lakes and at least 269,000 tons floating in the ocean. This new report calculates that another 8 million tonnes is being added to the ocean every year, or the “equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute.” By 2030, the rate is expected to double to two garbage trucks per minute; by 2050, the rate will quadruple.
What plastic isn’t clumping together into massive chunks of ocean debris or being swallowed by birds and other wildlife is breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. But the plastic never totally disappears. In its original form, the report explains, plastic can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years, and even longer once it breaks up into micro- and nanoparticles.
More Plastic Than Fish
The most recent research estimates there is 150 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean will contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in 2025. By 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish, by weight.
Doesn’t sound believable? Well, there is a significant caveat to this calculation. This scenario assumes fish stocks will remain constant between now and 2050, but given the reckless rate of overfishing worldwide, that makes it an exceedingly conservative estimate. Unbelievable as it may seem, there could be much more plastic than fish in the ocean even sooner than 2050. But it gets worse. As the report warns,
“[E]ven if concerted abatement efforts were made to reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean, the volume of plastic waste going into the ocean would stabilize rather than decline, implying a continued increase in total ocean plastics volumes, unless those abatement efforts were coupled with a longer-term systemic solution, including the adoption of principles of the circular economy.”
It’s Time “to Practice What We Have Preached”
Given these calculations, the Foundation urges the planet to rethink its plastics economy, instigate more recycling and develop reusable and/or compostable plastic packaging.
“Anchored in a set of universally applicable Sustainable Development Goals, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all 193 members of the United Nations in September 2015, underlined a common determination to take bold and transformative steps towards a better future for all,” writes H.E. Mogens Lykketoft, President of the UN General Assembly for the 70th session.
“Now is the time for implementation. We must now begin to practice what we have preached — changing our production and consumption patterns in order to create virtuous cycles rather than depletive ones and harnessing the global interconnectedness, communications technology and breakthroughs in materials science.”