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Breaking The Plastic Wave: Without Action, Ocean Plastic will nearly triple by 2040

 

Table Of Contents

1.0 Plastic is here to stay....it's a cumulative problem

2.0 Why is new plastic production and plastic ocean leakage still increasing?

3.0 Where to begin?And When? Urgency! Urgency! Urgency!

4.0 Difficulty and  Inefficiency of Existing Initiatives - Change Tactics! Broader Scope with Developing Nations!

5.0  Attack the Problem from Both Sides - Initiatives for Both Pre-Consumer and Post-Consumer Plastic Pollution Reduction

6.0 Specific Initiatives to Combine Collectively and Immediately to Drastically Reduce Ocean Plastic Pollution

7.0 Conclusion

8.0 Sources

 

 

In a scathing report lead by think tank SystemIQ Ltd. and Pew Charitable Trusts, it appears that we are currently on pace to nearly triple ocean plastic from 11 million metric tons to 29 million metric tons by 2040!

 

This peer reviewed report was just released, and is named "Breaking the Plastic Wave" and you can read it HERE

 

What's even scarier than 29 million metric tons of plastic in our ocean each year?

 

What's already there. This will leave us with an even bigger problem of an accumulation of 710 million metric tons of plastic by 2040, and that's assuming we take reasonable measures to mitigate the issue through recycling. 

 

Lets start by addressing the foundational problems with plastic.  Especially single use plastic. Why is plastic a "special" issue for pollution, compared with regular garbage?

 

1.0 Plastic is here to stay....it's a cumulative problem

 

 

 

The main problem with plastic is that it simply does not break down. Ever.

Well almost ever, if you have centuries to wait!

 

The best metaphor I can relate to this global predicament is a morbidly obese person that continues to eat well above their caloric maintenance level.

 

We are effectively fighting a two front war on plastic - we are currently producing too much of it, and that's not even considering how much of it that it is STILL HERE FOR CENTURIES and polluting our environment, and our bodies through microplastics.

 

2.0 Why is new plastic production and plastic ocean leakage still increasing?

 

The rise of the global middle class!  Although there is currently minimal upward social mobility in western europe and America, sometimes we forget in these extraordinary social and economic times, that each year, there are still millions of people in Africa and Asia being lifted out of abject poverty.  

 

Going from abject poverty to even a low middle class is a BIG deal when you extrapolate consumption over two continents that collectively house 6 billion people!

 

And sadly, these nations are conforming to western consumption trends in regards to waste and especially plastic pollution production.  

 

In fact, 10 rivers, with 8 in Asia and 2 in Africa, contribute virtually all (93%) of the plastic pollution that ends up in our oceans! 

 

  The Yangtze river in china by itself pollutes nearly 1.5 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean, representing nearly 15% of the entire yearly ocean plastic pollution!

In summary, the combination of a huge global and rising middle class in Africa and Asia is one of the largest reasons the problem is accelerating, and especially due to the lack of waste management infrastructure.  Both waste collection as well as disposal are both significant challenge for these developing economies. 

Of course, the first step is to stop the bleeding! We MUST produce less than before....OR more realistic than just reduction, a combination of better reuse, upcycling, recycling, and proper disposal through landfill when all other options fail.  

 

3.0 Where to begin?And When? Urgency! Urgency! Urgency!

The approach must be both comprehensive yet uniform, and also must encompass all nations and industries.  It must address existing as well as new plastics entering our ecosystem, and it must also be affordable and realistic to implement.  

 

In my opinion, we need a global undertaking of this issue in the level of governmental, financial, and industrial magnitude akin to the Bretton Woods System and Marshall Plan. 

 

 

 

Fortunately, however, the "Breaking the Plastic Wave" report has done a great job giving us key statistics, figures, and pragmatic recommendations to create real, sustainable and lasting change that is also palatable to business interests, tax bases, and is conscious of additional expenditure.

 

 

However, it is important to emphasis the urgency of implementing these measures immediately. Every year we wait, the problem becomes significantly worse given both the cumulative effect coupled with leakage and plastic pollution of new plastic manufacturing. 

 

As the report states, "A system-wide implementation delay of five years would result in ~80 million metric tons more plastic stock in the ocean by 2040. That is equivalent to approximately half of today’s stock."

 

4.0 Difficulty and  Inefficiency of Existing Initiatives - Change Tactics! Broader Scope with Developing Nations!

 

 

We've all heard about single use plastic bag bans - in fact, many of them may have already come to your city!  Additionally, there have also been many plastic straw bans as well, which you may also have seen at your local coffee shop or office.  

 

While we applaud these efforts, it's important to remember that their number one level of effectiveness is to bring awareness to the SEVERITY & URGENCY of the plastic pollution problem to our society as a whole, but these initiatives will do very little to combat the problem of plastic pollution.

 

Why? 

 

They are simply two narrow in scope and they are largely only taking place in developed countries which already have strong waste management and recycling infrastructure. 

 

One again, as a fitness enthusiast, these initiatives are a lot like ordering a huge cheeseburger, a large fries and a DIET coke. 

 

 

The Breaking The Plastic Wave expresses this point clearly, "

"By 2040, current government and industry commitments are likely to reduce annual plastic leakage to the ocean by only 7 per cent (±1 per cent) relative to the Business-asUsual Scenario."

 

5.0  Attack the Problem from Both Sides - Initiatives for Both Pre-Consumer and Post-Consumer Plastic Pollution Reduction

 

As discussed previously, we must take systemic, comprehensive and holistic change - a fundamental change to the plastic industry's business model. 

 

Examples of pre-consumer initiatives would be a change in manufacturing that produces lower amounts of plastic for the same item through better design, or substituting non-plastic components (or completely substituting out plastic entirely), and examples of post-consumer would be improving waste management infrastructure , collection, disposal, and recycling rates.  

 

Attacking the plastic pollution problem from only one angle would have a significantly diminished effect.  

 

As the report states, "Modeled on their own, no “single solution” strategies reduce annual leakage of plastic to the ocean even below 2016 levels by 2040."

 

6.0 Specific Initiatives to Combine Collectively and Immediately to Drastically Reduce Ocean Plastic Pollution

 

i) Reduce plastic use and consumption overall

 

 

This can be achieved through elimination of single use plastic, reusing durable plastics, and better delivery methods.  This is the single biggest factor in reducing overall ocean plastic pollution, and will represent a 30% overall reduction from projected pollution levels by 2040. 

ii) Substitute plastic with  paper and other compost-friendly goods for plastic goods, especially single use plastic. 

 

Fortunately, I believe this trend is already on its way in the developed world, there must also be a similar effort in the developing world as well.  If implemented immediately, will represent a 17% overall reduction from projected pollution levels by 2040. 

 

iii) Design products more conducive to recycling.

 

 

As mentioned in previous posts HERE, plastic recycling rates are sadly quite low! Even with PET plastic water bottles, which are among the most commonly recycled types of plastic, recycling rates are still at best, 30%.  With better design that is more uniform, we can more than double economically recyclable plastic from 21% to 54%.

 

iv) Double mechanical recycling capacity globally and create better plastic to plastic conversion ecosystems. 

 

As PlasticsEurope.org explains, "Mechanical recycling of plastics refers to the processing of plastics waste into secondary raw material or products without significantly changing the chemical structure of the material. In principle, all types of thermoplastics can be mechanically recycled with little or no quality impairment. It is currently the almost sole form of recycling in Europe, representing more than 99% of the recycled quantities."

This consists of both open loop and closed loop mechanical recycling, and doubling these systems are one of strongest weapons to reduce ocean plastic pollution, and all plastic pollution in general.  Doubling mechanical recycling would create total capacity to 86 million metric tons annually. Similarly, chemical based plastic to plastic conversion can also crate a total annual capacity up to 13 million metric tons.

 

v) Build More Plastic Disposal Facilities

 

Especially in developing countries, there are simply not enough landfills or incineration facilities available to combat the high levels of plastic pollution, and this is often the catalyst to leakage plastic into our oceans.  Although hopefully temporary, and a worse long term strategy than reduction, reuse, and recycling, new disposal facilities are a significantly better option than plastic leakage into rivers, lakes, and oceans. 

 

vi) Reduce plastic waste exports to developing countries with high ocean leakage and poor waste collection and disposal infrastructure by 90%. 

 

 

 

 

The sad fact is that we should never have been exporting so much plastic waste to developed countries in the first place, although the low labor costs make this economically attractive for businesses.  As mentioned previously, it is only 10 rivers in Asia and Africa that are creating 93% of the ocean leakage and plastic pollution crisis, and we must do everything in our power to divert all plastic pollution and waste away from already overworked and underfunded waste disposal and collection infrastructure. 

 

 

7.0 Conclusion

 

 

So....we can do nothing.  And we can watch the ocean plastic pollution problem explode and triple in a very short period of time.  We haven't even touched upon the dangers of ocean plastic to plant and animal wildlife in this post, nor have we discussed the disastrous effects of microplastics on our bodies. All of it ultimately affect us negatively, and the problem is so widespread already that there can be no avoiding it anymore or shifting responsibility to another nation or generation.

 

 We have become a global society and it is time to take global responsibility for our plastic addiction before it is too late.  Similar to climate change as a whole, we DO still have time to act, and there is still hope.

 

  Each day we don't act, we condemn our children and the next generation to a dire fate that could have been avoided.  Let's start implementing as many solutions as possible TODAY.

 

 

 

8.0 Sources: 

https://www.systemiq.earth/breakingtheplasticwave/

 

https://www.ecowatch.com/ocean-plastic-2040-2646793992.html?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1

 

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stemming-the-plastic-tide-10-rivers-contribute-most-of-the-plastic-in-the-oceans/#:~:text=Environment-,Stemming%20the%20Plastic%20Tide%3A%2010%20Rivers%20Contribute%20Most,the%20Plastic%20in%20the%20Oceans&text=Our%20seas%20are%20choking%20on%20plastic.&text=The%2010%20rivers%20that%20carry,Niger%20and%20Nile%20in%20Africa.

 

https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/focus-areas/circular-economy/zero-plastics-landfill/recycling-and-energy-recovery#:~:text=Mechanical%20recycling%20of%20plastics%20refers,little%20or%20no%20quality%20impairment.

 

https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution 

 

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-09506-1

 

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/banning-plastic-straws-will-not-be-enough-fight-clean-oceans-n951141

 

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/a-circular-economy-for-plastics-it-s-time-to-redesign-our-thinking

 

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/european-union-overwhelmingly-approves-plastic-ban-could-polyester-regulations-be-next

 

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/the-ellen-mcarthur-foundation-the-new-plastics-economy-a-sensible-sustainable-and-pragmatic-approach

 

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/microplastics-why-sustainable-fashion-matters

 

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/life-is-plastic-and-it-s-not-fantastic

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