Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Breaking the Plastic Wave

Plastic bag in the ocean. Image — Wikimedia Commons.

The public’s collective realization of the seriousness of ocean plastic pollution has increased over recent years.

Ocean plastic pollution originates from 95% of single-use plastic packaging, valued between US$80 billion to US$120 billion a year.

Many people in the industry, government, and civil society are also concerned with the lack of evidence-based procedures and processes to enable converging actions to reduce ocean plastic pollution.

The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ sought to answer the questions of what procedures and processes can be used to greatly reduce plastic pollution entering our oceans.

PEW and SYSTEMIQ reported their findings in 2020 BreakingThePlasticWave_Report.pdf breakingtheplasticwave_report.pdf (pewtrusts.org) under a Creative Commons License Attribution — Non-Commercial.

The following is a summary of the report.

In creating the report PEW and SYSTEMIQ, building on previous research, reported on the global plastics system showing comprehensive, integrated, and economically feasible means to largely reduce plastic pollution entering our oceans.

The authors of the report consulted widely with academia, industry, government, and non-governmental organizations, who all demonstrated a willingness to take action.

This included 17 experts from various backgrounds who were looking at the plastic pollution problem, and with 4 partner institutions, the University of Oxford, University of Leeds, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Common Seas. The authors referred to major publications, analyses, and reports, and consulted over 100 independent experts.

The report addressed 7 strategic questions:

Are we on track to solving the plastic pollution crisis?

How bad will it get for the economy, the environment, and communities?

Do we have the technology to solve the problem?

What is the way out?

What will it cost and who will bear the burden?

Is the solution attractive for citizens, businesses, governments, and for ecosystems?

Where do we start?

The results were summarized into 10 critical findings.

Number One finding was that the flow of plastic into the ocean is on an increasing trajectory and if we continue as we have the annual flow of plastics into the ocean could increase by close to 300% by 2040. From 11 million metric tons (range: 9 million-14 million metric tons per year) in 2016 to 29 million metric tons per year (range: 23 million-37 million metric tons per year) in 2040.

The number two finding was that with the current commitments by major industries and governments to reduce plastic pollution, we will see a 7% (±1 percent) reduction in plastic pollution relative to our current trajectory. This is because these commitments are often narrow in focus or concentrated in low-leakage countries.

Number three is there is no single solution to end ocean plastic pollution. Upstream and downstream solutions should be deployed together.

Upstream examples are pre-consumer, such as material redesign, plastic reduction, and substitution, and downstream solutions are post-consumer, such as recycling and disposal. Modeled on their own, no single solution strategy reduced the annual leakage of plastic to the ocean even below 2016 levels by 2040.

Number four, it was shown that if currently available technologies, management practices, and policy approaches were applied and funded, including reduction, recycling, and plastic substitution, the flow of plastics into the ocean could be reduced to around 20% of current levels within 20 years.

- A reduction of plastic production, through elimination, the expansion of consumer reuse options, or new delivery models, is the most attractive solution from environmental, economic, and social perspectives.

-Reduce growth in plastic production and consumption to avoid nearly one-third of projected plastic waste generation through elimination, reuse, and new delivery models.

-Substitute plastic with paper and compostable materials, switching one-sixth of projected plastic waste generation.

-Design products and packaging for recycling to expand the share of economically recyclable plastic from an estimated 21 percent to 54 percent.

-Expand waste collection rates in middle to low-income countries to 90 percent in all urban areas and 50 percent in rural areas and support the informal collection sector.

-Double mechanical recycling capacity globally to 86 million metric tons per year.

-Develop plastic-to-plastic conversion, potentially to a global capacity of up to 13 million metric tons per year.

-Build facilities to dispose of the 23 percent of plastic that cannot be recycled economically, as a transitional measure.

-Reduce plastic waste exports by 90 percent to countries with the low collection and high leakage rates.

-Roll out known solutions for four microplastic (<5mm) sources, tires, textiles, personal care products, and production pellets, to reduce annual microplastic leakage to the ocean by 1.8 million metric tons per year (from 3 million metric tons down to 1.2 million metric tons) by 2040.

Number five is going beyond this System Change Scenario to tackle the remaining 5 million metric tons per year (range: 4 -7 million metric tons per year) of plastic leakage demands significant innovation across the entire value chain. For example, new materials lead to new tire designs to reduce the abrasion of microplastic particles while maintaining safety standards.

Number six is a System Change Scenario that is economically viable for governments and consumers, but a major redirection of capital investment is required.

The present value of global investments in the plastic industry between 2021 and 2040 can be reduced from US$2.5 trillion (±US$800 billion) to US$1.2 trillion (±US$300 billion), but the System Change Scenario will require a substantial shift of investment away from the production and conversion of virgin plastic, to the production of new delivery models, plastic substitutes, recycling facilities, and collection infrastructure.

Number seven, reducing approximately 80 percent (82 ±13 percent) of plastic leakage into the ocean will bring to life a new circular plastics economy with major opportunities, and risks for the industry.

Plastic pollution presents a unique risk for producers and users of virgin plastics given regulatory changes and growing consumer outrage. But it is also a unique opportunity for providers of new and existing circular business models and materials.

Number eight is, that a system change would require different implementation priorities in different geographies and for different plastic categories.

High-income countries should prioritize addressing microplastic leakage (which represents 62 percent [range: 29 per cent-76 percent] of leakage in high-income countries), technological and policy innovation to incentivize reduction and substitution, and further increasing recycling rates.

Middle to low-income countries should prioritize expanding formal collection, decreasing overall plastic consumption, investing in sorting and recycling infrastructure, and reducing post-collection leakage.

Universally, the top priority is reducing avoidable plastic, of which the report estimates there will be 125 million metric tons (range: 110 million metric tons-142 million metric tons) globally by 2040.

Number nine is that addressing plastic leakage into the ocean under the System Change Scenario has many co-benefits for climate, health, jobs, working conditions, and the environment, thus contributing to many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The integrated System Change Scenario results in 25 percent (±11 percent) lower plastic-related GHG emissions in 2040; however, it still represents an increase in emissions relative to today. As such, it will be vital to scale up measures offering the greatest GHG savings and further decarbonize energy sources.

Number ten, the time is now: If we want to significantly reduce plastic leakage, we have the solutions at our fingertips. An implementation delay of five years would result in an additional ~80 million metric tons of plastic going into the ocean by 2040.

If we apply and invest in all the technologies, management practices, and policy approaches we currently have, including reduction, recycling, and plastic substitution, in 20 years there would be about an 80 percent reduction from the current trajectory in the flow of plastic into the ocean.

The new solutions recommended in the report would provide consumers with the same services that plastic delivers today, at a lower cost to society.

The plastics value chain needs to be transformed in the next two decades, because the risks to marine species and ecosystems, our climate, our economy, and to our communities, will become unmanageable.

But also, there are unique opportunities for governments, businesses, and innovators in a more sustainable world with circular business models and new sustainable materials.

References:

PEW and SYSTEMIQ (2020) Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution BreakingThePlasticWave_Report.pdf breakingtheplasticwave_report.pdf (pewtrusts.org)

PEW and SYSTEMIQ (2020) Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution. Summary. BreakingThePlasticWave_Summary.pdf breakingtheplasticwave_summary.pdf (pewtrusts.org)

Simon Clark (2022, Aug 5) Why TeamSeas Doesn’t Work: Their Interceptors [Video File]. Retrieved from (1345) Why TeamSeas Doesn’t Work: Their Interceptors — YouTube

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Peter Miles

Peter Miles

45 years in Environmental Science, B.Env.Sc. in Wildlife & Conservation Biology. Writes on Animals, Plants, Soil & Climate Change. environmentalsciencepro.com