Even though awareness of plastic pollution is increasing, very little is being done to address the problem. At this rate, by 2050, some experts predict that the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
A United Nations concept paper, commissioned by the G20, has now detailed everything the world should do to prevent this from becoming our reality because we are not doing enough.
Today, around 11 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year, and according to a 2020 model from SYSTEMIQ and The Pew Trusts, by 2040 the amount of plastic waste that escapes into our oceans could almost triple. .
Meanwhile, promises and policies from governments and companies will only reduce plastic waste in the marine environment by 7%.
This is far from what it will take to achieve the G20’s Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, which aims to prevent any new plastic pollution from entering the oceans by 2050.
To get there, UN researchers argue that the world needs a “global change in the plastics economy.” We need the plastics industry to move from a “linear and wasteful system” to a circular, renewable system in just a few decades.
According to the report, this is an ambitious goal, but it is the only way to achieve the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision. If the G20 is really serious about its commitments, then leading countries need to make plastic pollution a higher priority in the future.
The report is largely based on a model released in 2020. It shows that if the world decides to take ambitious and urgent action on plastic pollution, we can reduce the waste going to our oceans by 82% by 2040 using known technologies and approaches.
This will, of course, require nations all over the world to act in unison, which we have not been great at so far. But if we can find the best route to get there, we could create a roadmap for everyone to follow.
“It’s time to stop the isolated changes where you have random things country after country that at first glance are good but actually don’t make any difference,” says Steve Fletcher of the University of Portsmouth.
“Intentions are good, but don’t admit that changing one part of the system in isolation doesn’t magically change everything else.”
Recycling alone will not be enough. The 2020 model revealed that at least half a million people will need to be connected to waste collection services every day for this to work as a strategy.
“Since this is unlikely, reducing the amount of plastic in the system should be a top priority for policy makers, as waste management systems cannot change fast enough,” the report says.
“The use of plastic can be reduced, minimized or avoided altogether in many circumstances through intentional changes in the design of a product. “
Global packaging, the authors point out, is valued at between $ 80 billion and $ 120 billion per year, but 95% of that money is wasted as plastic waste. Not only could the design change save companies money, but there are economic benefits to developing new products that rely less on plastic and more on renewable materials.
Ocean clean-up efforts will also be needed to salvage at least some of what we have already thrown away, including the huge area of Pacific garbage and other similar accumulations of plastic.
But preventing further leaks should be our number one priority, according to the researchers. Cleaning plastic in the ocean comes with many challenges, requires advanced technology, and costs a lot of money.
As such, ocean clean-up should only be seen as a “useful transition effort” on the road to a circular plastics economy. Otherwise, we will continue to give ourselves more and more garbage to dispose of.
In a time of global economic recovery, as COVID-19 stimulus packages focus on green growth like never before, the world has the opportunity to tackle the plastics economy like never before.
If these stimulus packages can include measures to reduce marine plastic and create greener sectors across countries, we may well make the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision a reality after all.
The report of the United Nations International Resource Group is available here.