Editor's note: This report was updated on Oct. 23, 2020, to include a more comprehensive list of contributors and sources, and to add a link to the recently published article in the journal Science.
Plastic has become ubiquitous on store shelves and in our homes. From wrapped food and disposable bottles to microbeads in body washes, it’s used widely as packaging or in products because it’s versatile, cheap, and convenient. But this convenience comes with a price. Plastic waste is entering the ocean at a rate of about 11 million metric tons a year, where it is harming marine life and damaging habitats.
How did we get here? We have been producing vast quantities of plastic products and have had few measures in place to regulate their use or properly manage their disposal.
"Breaking the Plastic Wave," a global analysis using first-of-its kind modeling, shows that we can cut annual flows of plastic into the ocean by about 80% in the next 20 years by applying existing solutions and technologies. No single solution can achieve this goal; rather, we break the plastic wave only by taking immediate, ambitious, and concerted actions.
An estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year. Without immediate and sustained action, that amount will nearly triple by 2040, to 29 million metric tons per year. That’s the same as dumping 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of plastic on every meter of coastline around the world.
Although progress has been made in addressing the global plastic challenge, commitments by governments and industry will reduce the annual volume of plastic flowing into the ocean by only about 7% by 2040. Most new regulations focus on specific items rather than systemic change, and do not significantly curb the projected growth in plastic production. Businesses are focused mainly on recycling or otherwise disposing of plastic, but significant efforts are also needed to eliminate its use.
Preventing the vast majority of plastic from entering the ocean requires reducing plastic use, finding substitutes for plastics, improving recycling practices, expanding waste collection, and ensuring that disposal facilities prevent plastic leakage as a transitional measure.
If all of the solutions outlined in the “System Change” scenario in "Breaking the Plastic Wave" are implemented, we can reduce by about 80% the annual flow of plastic waste into the ocean by 2040. This reduction will require substantial shifts in all economic sectors, significant new investments, and major policy changes from governments.
Although the technologies exist to address this challenge, the infrastructure, policies, business processes, and financing are not in place to enable their rapid deployment. A substantial shift of investment away from the production of new plastic to the development of reuse and refill systems and sustainable substitute materials is needed, as are expanded recycling facilities, more collection infrastructure, and new delivery models. This shift would require government incentives and a new approach from industry and investors.
If such actions are taken, governments around the world could collectively save $70 billion while also reducing plastic pollution.
Breaking the plastic wave will require every nation to do its part, but in different ways. Middle- and low-income countries should focus on expanding collection of plastic waste, maximizing reduction and substitution, investing in sorting and recycling infrastructure, and reducing leakage from waste sites. High-income countries should incentivize reductions in plastic usage, boost recycling rates, end exports of plastic waste, and address microplastic leakage.
Adopting systemwide changes to curb ocean plastic pollution offers social, economic, and environmental benefits, from reducing projected greenhouse gas emissions to creating 700,000 jobs around the globe. Among those whose health and livelihoods would benefit are the 11 million waste pickers in developing countries who collect about 60% of plastic waste for recycling and play a critical role in keeping plastics out of the ocean.
Delaying the actions outlined in the report by five years would add 80 million metric tons of plastic waste to the 248 million metric tons projected to enter the ocean from 2016 to 2040, compounding risks for marine species and ecosystems, our climate, and our communities.
Achieving a vision of near-zero plastic leakage to the ocean is within reach if governments, businesses, and innovators act now.