A world-renowned expert in plastic pollution from the University of Plymouth has contributed to a major new report showing that without immediate and sustained action, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean could nearly triple by 2040.
However, technologies that are available today could cut this volume by more than 80 per cent if key decision makers are willing to make system-wide changes, the report suggests.
Led by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, the findings are revealed in a new report – Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution – and a paper published today in Science.
They worked in collaboration with the University of Oxford, University of Leeds, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Common Seas, supported by a panel of 17 global experts including Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit.
The research found that if no action is taken to address the projected growth in plastic production and consumption, the amount of plastic entering the ocean each year would grow from 11 million metric tons to 29 million metric tons over the next 20 years. That is equivalent to nearly 50kg of plastic on each metre of coastline worldwide.
Because plastic remains in the ocean for hundreds of years and may never truly biodegrade, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean by 2040 could reach 600 million tons.
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges in the fight to end ocean-bound plastic pollution, as single-use plastic consumption has increased during the pandemic, according to the International Solid Waste Association.
Professor Thompson led the first research to characterise ocean microplastics in 2004, and his team’s work led to the University being awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2020 for its ground-breaking research and policy impact on microplastics pollution in the oceans. He said:
“Plastics bring many societal benefits. These lightweight, versatile, durable and inexpensive materials have the potential to reduce our human footprint on the planet. But at present over 40% of all production is destined for single use items which bring short term benefit but can persist for centuries, and this rapid and sustained accumulation of end of life plastic as waste in managed systems, and as litter, is creating a global environmental challenge.