Plastic Reduction Targets Are Far Too Low, Study Says

Even if goals are met, a cargo ship's worth of plastic will enter oceans daily by 2030.

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plastic trash on a beach in Bali
Plastic trash on a beach in Bali.

@karlova_victoria via Twenty20

You know all those promises that governments are making to curb single-use plastics and get a handle on plastic waste within the next five to 10 years? Unfortunately, they're not going to do much, even if they do take the shape of formal policies. They may be backed by good intentions, but the level of effort required to "fix" this problem is so extraordinary that current governmental reduction targets are completely off.

This disappointing news comes from a new study published in the journal Science. It is the result of a collaboration between researchers at the University of Toronto, University of Georgia, the Ocean Conservancy, and numerous other international institutions that have come together as the SESYNC (National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center) working group. The group assessed the environmental impact of three plastic management strategies – reduction, waste management, and environmental recovery – at different levels of effort to figure out plastic emissions for 173 countries by the year 2030.

What they found was that, even if current government targets for plastic reduction were met (and that's optimistic), there would be as much as 53 million metric tons of plastic entering the world's oceans annually. That is roughly equivalent to one ship's cargo getting dumped daily in the ocean – obviously far too much.

If annual ocean plastic waste were to be shrunk down to less than 8 million metric tons, which is the number that Dr. Jenna Jambeck discovered back in 2015 when this subject made global headlines (and that was considered unacceptably high at the time), extreme efforts would be required. The SESYNC working group determined that 

"plastic production and waste would need to be reduced by 25-40%; all countries would need to properly manage 60–99% of all their waste [including in low-income economies]; and society would need to recover 40% of the remaining plastics that do enter the environment."

To put that final number into perspective, the Ocean Conservancy hosts an annual International Coastal Cleanup that attracts volunteers from over 100 countries every September. To recover 40% of plastics that enter the environment would mean one billion people participating in the cleanup event – a 90,000% increase from 2019. In other words, wonderful-sounding, but unrealistic.

Dr. Chelsea Rochman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and senior advisor to the Ocean Conservancy, said the study has shown we need to be doing far more and don't have a moment to lose:

"Even if we achieve our most ambitious plastics reduction and recycling targets, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could double by 2030. If we fail and continue along a ‘business as usual’ path, it could quadruple. The study lays bare that current commitments are not enough to stem the tide of plastic entering our aquatic ecosystems."

Governments do not seem to grasp the level of ambition they need to fight this problem, and should be willing to go to more extreme measures to do so. It's something for individuals to realize as well, and to keep in mind when making shopping decisions that relate to plastic. This is a fight that matters a lot, that needs to be taken more seriously, and that requires action now.