New Study Warns We Have Until 2050 To Save Ocean From Plastic Pollution

by Rudy Sanchez on 07/26/2021 | 3 Minute Read

The enormity of the scale of ocean plastic pollution is understood to be massive, as are the consequences of inaction. Awareness of the adverse and disastrous effects of plastic getting into the environment, including the ocean, has spurred increased studies into the scope of the problem and possible solutions. 

As consumers, governments, and industries look for ways to address the amount of plastic waste in the environment, a new report by The Pew Charitable Trusts creates a 29-year time limit on implementing comprehensive and global strategies that prevent new plastic from entering into the ocean. The report also outlines the possible economic, environmental, social, and health outcomes of achieving no-new ocean plastic by 2050, continuing on Business-As-Usual (BAS), with recommendations based on geography and economic development.

Breaking the Plastic Pathway concludes that, at the current pace, the flow of plastic into the ocean will triple by 2040, to 29 million metric tons annually. Researchers also found that government and industry initiatives and voluntary actions are often put in place in low-leakage areas and will ultimately make a difference of 7 percent compared to BAS. Furthermore, solutions include changes up and downstream and innovations in the supply chain. 

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The report also provides some optimism as it finds that implementation of its “System Change Scenario” is both economically and technically viable today, with governments ultimately saving $70 billion annually in waste management if $1.7 trillion is shifted away from virgin material production towards new distribution models, alternative materials, recycling, and collection infrastructure.

Continuing on the positive outlook, researchers found several co-benefits of action, including up to 700,000 new jobs, many in low/mid-income nations, improved health from the reduction in toxic materials in the environment, and a positive effect on climate change through a reduction of gases from the burning of plastics.

However, the study paints a dire picture if plastic continues with what it calls an “untenable trajectory,” pointing out environmental risks like the extinction and injury of hundreds of sea species, the loss of cultural and economic value of the ocean and surrounding environments, and a substantial rise in greenhouse gases, making Paris Accord targets unreachable.

Businesses stand to lose $13 billion a year as plastic pollution impacts industries like commercial fishing and tourism and damages incurred by infrastructure operators. Supply chain disruptions due to the effects of plastic pollution will also contribute to losses.

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Socioeconomic losses range from $1.5-2.2 trillion as land impacted by plastic pollution sees a decrease in value. Researchers were unable to narrow the range but concluded that plastic’s impact on fishing, tourism, and cultural value coming with a significant pricetag.

Continuing to allow plastic into the ocean could also have significant negative implications on human health. The production of new plastic material exposes humans and the environment to toxic chemicals such as benzene, mercury, and lead. Plastic pollution also decreases the psychological benefits derived from clean coastal environments and blocks drainage and water flows, creating stagnant water conditions that harbor disease. Plus, the burning of plastic releases harmful substances into the air, triggering a wave of toxic dioxins to residents that live near incineration plants. While the study noted that the impact of microplastics on human health is still a relatively new field of research, more analysis is needed to understand its consequences on the body.

Though 2050 is the deadline Pew’s study puts on stopping all plastic from reaching the ocean, action is required immediately as even a slight delay could potentially cause a significant setback. A five-year delay in implementation would result in an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean by 2040, researchers concluded.

So, now is as good a time as any to cut some of the plastic out of your life, and governments would be wise to start putting the honus on brands that continue to feed consumers environmentally destructive single-use waste.

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