The planet’s plastic problem is swirling out of control and current efforts to get out of this mess are nowhere near tough enough, according to a new study.
New research published in the journal Science revealed that 24 to 34 million metric tons of plastic pollution currently enters the marine environment every year. That’s around 11 percent of the total plastic waste generated across the world. Things are only set to get worse in the coming decade, with up to 53-90 million tons expected to end up in the marine environment each year by 2030.
Back in 2015, the level of plastic pollution released in the oceans and waterways was said to be 8 million metric tons. If the world was to cut down plastic pollution to less than this level, it would require an extraordinary global effort: a 25 to 40 percent reduction in the production of plastic across all economies; increasing the level of waste collection and management to at least 60 percent across all economies; and recovery of 40 percent of annual plastic emissions through cleanup efforts.
"To put that last number into people power, the cleanup alone would require at least 1 billion people participating in Ocean Conservancy's annual International Coastal Cleanup. This would be a Herculean task given this is 660 times the effort of the 2019 cleanup," Stephanie Borrelle, lead author and Smith Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto in Canada, said in a statement.
It will require a coordinated global effort to even start addressing this problem, although it does appear that some countries will need more focus and attention. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka are the planet's worst polluters. In fact, China alone appears to be linked to at least one-third of plastic pollution. However, the blame is not squarely on them; many of these Asian countries, especially China, have imported a huge amount of plastic and other recyclables from foreign countries, notably from Europe and North America.
"Unless growth in plastic production and use is halted, a fundamental transformation of the plastic economy to a framework based on recycling is essential, where end-of-life plastic products are valued rather than becoming waste," added Chelsea Rochman, senior study author and assistant professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto.
The scale of death and damage caused by the relentless outflow of plastic pollutants is unknown, but it’s certainly taking a toll on the health of our ecosystems. As just one of many examples, a study in 2019 found at least 1,000 documented instances where sharks and rays had become entangled in oceanic plastic waste. There have also been numerous recent reports of whales washing up dead with balls of plastic pollution in their guts.
Plastic pollution may start off as discarded fishing nets or soda bottles, but it can eventually degrade into microplastics that range from 5 millimeters to 100 nanometres across. These microplastic particles have infiltrated practically every ecosystem on Earth, from Antarctica's ice to the belly’s of the planet’s deepest living creatures.They can even be found in human poop and human organs.