600 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans is our future

Horrible but great picture of plastic pollution

Sharks have it in their stomachs. Whales can have a huge number of plastic bags inside them which can be fatal. Sixty percent of seabirds and a hundred percent of turtles have plastic inside them and they mistake it for food. It is in the deepest and darkest depths. Plastic is everywhere in the oceans and it is forecast to triple by 2040. Not enough is being done to tackle this horrendous environmental problem. As usual, the politicians do plenty of talking but they don’t convert it into action. And what is worrying is that the coronavirus pandemic has taken climate change and plastic pollution temporarily off the agenda. It has also emptied the coffers so there’s less money to spend on improving the environment. And improving the environment is going to be very, very expensive which is why there is resistance to taking genuine steps to do what is necessary.

Horrible but great picture of plastic pollution

Horrible but great picture of plastic pollution. Picture in public domain.

The Times newspaper tells us that the amount of plastic reaching the oceans could almost triple by 2040 unless steps are taken to prevent it happening. Researchers developed a model which tracks the flow of plastic around the world enabling us to predict the plastic pollution future.

In 2016 there was an estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans annually. In 2040 it is predicted that there will be 29 million tonnes getting into the oceans. They say that for every metre of shoreline, the equivalent of 50 kg of plastic is washing into the seas. The report is entitled, “Breaking the Wave”.

The report says that 30 million tonnes of plastic was dumped on land and 50 million tonnes of it was burnt which, incidentally, causes greenhouse gas emissions (it is not clear over what period this took place). Plastic is very slow to break down and can remain in the oceans for hundreds of years. This results in a buildup which consequently harms marine wildlife, contaminates the food chain and damages fisheries and aquaculture.

Cleaning up plastic pollution in Fiji

Cleaning up plastic pollution in Fiji. Photo: in public domain.

As plastic accumulates in the oceans it could reach 600 million tonnes (once again no predicted date is reported). Depressingly, they report that even if governments and companies commit to curbing the problem in various ways such as banning products and investing in recycling they will only reduce the amount going into the oceans by 7%. It appears that the better way to proceed is by “altering how plastic is handled, using existing interventions”. This could reduce the amount of plastic ending up in the seas by 80% when compared with doing nothing at all.

There needs to be a substitution of plastic by other materials, making packaging reusable and recyclable and improving waste collection. It will also cut greenhouse gas emissions. There would be benefits in terms of jobs and a reduction in costs for businesses and governments.

The study was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and it was a collaboration between Systemiq and the University of Oxford, University of Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Common Seas.

Tom Dillon, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ vice president for the environment said that, “There’s no single solution but with a rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave”.