Ocean Plastic Pollution Will Triple by 2040 Without Drastic Action

That's equivalent to 110 pounds of plastic per yard of shoreline.

a plastic-covered beach in Jakarta, Indonesia
A little boy plays on a plastic-covered beach in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Ed Wray / Getty Images 

Plastic pollution is a big problem. But just how big has remained something of a mystery until recently, when a detailed study was published that delved into the actual numbers driving the crisis. This important study was the result of two years of research and analysis by Pew Charitable Trusts and environmental think tank SYSTEMIQ, Ltd. that, together, wanted to quantify the problem that we face in order to come up with more effective solutions for it. It was published both in the form of a peer-reviewed study in Science journal and as a report.

What the study revealed is that ocean plastic pollution will triple by 2040 if nothing is done to stop it. That translates to a horrifying 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of plastic per 3.2 feet (1 meter) of shoreline. The usual number cited for annual ocean plastic pollution is 8 million metric tons (one metric ton is 2204.6 pounds), but the study says that's really closer to 11 metric tons, and it could easily reach 29 metric tons in another twenty years – and this doesn't even include the enormous quantities of plastic that are discarded on land every year. Furthermore, even if governments and businesses followed through with all their promises to curb plastic waste, the global flow of ocean plastic would shrink by a mere 7% by 2040, which is far from adequate.

The researchers created and analyzed five scenarios in which plastic waste is dealt with differently between now and 2040. These included "Business As Usual" (providing a baseline to which alternative models can be compared), "Collect and Dispose" (improving collection and disposal infrastructure), "Recycling" (improving and expanding recycling capabilities), "Reduce and Substitute" (an upstream solution that replaces plastic with other greener materials), and "System Change" (a complete overhaul that includes reducing demand for plastic, replacing with better materials, and improving recycling rates). 

What the researchers found was that, if a total System Change did occur – and governments and businesses were brave enough to push for a remake of the global plastics industry, using every single bit of technology that is currently at their disposal – plastic waste could be reduced by 80% by 2040. But if this total overhaul were delayed by just five years, an additional 500 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste would enter the environment in the meantime. 

A total overhaul wouldn't be cheap. It would cost $600 billion, but as National Geographic reported, "That's $70 billion cheaper than proceeding through the next two decades business-as-usual, primarily because of the reduced use of virgin plastic."

There's really no choice, unless we want to live on a planet that's suffocating in plastic. To quote Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that has been advocating for a circular economy for years, "The writing is on the wall. We actually have to leave the oil in the ground and keep the flow of existing polymers in the system and innovate."

Recycling is a crucial part of the solution, but it must be greatly improved from its current underdeveloped state. Collection rates must go up, considering that two billion people currently lack access to waste collection services and that number will increase to four billion by 2040, but scaling up is a "monumental task," according to the report:

"[It] would require connecting over a million additional households to MSW (municipal solid waste) collection services per week from 2020 to 2040; the majority of these unconnected households are in middle-income countries."

As National Geographic explained, this is an "inconceivable prospect, but was included in the report to convey the enormity of the problems involved in containing waste on a global scale."

plastic waste left in a Welsh square
A worker cleans plastic trash left behind in a public square in Wales, June 2020. Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

What needs to change? 

The report makes several recommendations.

  • Production of new plastics must immediately decrease, which would mean halting the construction of new plastics facilities. 
  • Non-plastic alternatives must be found and developed, such as paper and compostable materials.
  • Products and packaging must be designed for better recycling. 
  • Waste collection rates must go up, expanding to 90% of urban areas and 50% of rural areas; and recycling technology must be improved.
  • Methods must be developed that transform used plastic into new plastic, as well as ways of using these products.
  • Better plastic disposal facilities need to be built to deal with the 23% of plastic that cannot be recycled economically.
  • Plastic exports must be halted to countries that have poor collection systems and high leakage rates – no more offshoring our trash to developing countries that cannot deal with it.

The report has both a depressing and stimulating effect. It paints a picture of a dire situation, one that feels almost impossible to resolve; and yet it shows, using hard economic data, that change is possible with technology that already exists. And if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's that supply chains can pivot rapidly when they need to. No magic bullet solutions have to be developed to make this happen, but people must band together to push for radical change.