How to prevent our oceans from becoming plastic filled ecosystems

The volume of plastic entering our oceans is projected to more than triple by 2040. Environment Journal got in touch with Sarah Baulch from the think tank PEW, to find out what can be done to reduce this pollution. 

PEW is a nonpartisan American think tank based in Washington, D.C, and recently they were involved in a report that made headlines: Breaking the Plastic Wave. 

According to the report, if we continue on our current business-as-usual trajectory, then by 2040, 29 million metric tonnes of plastic waste will enter our oceans every single year.

This increase in plastic waste will not only have a drastic impact on marine wildlife, aquatic food chains and ecosystems but it will also be a direct threat to the productivity of fisheries and human health through an increase in toxic chemicals entering the food chain.

However, all is not lost, and in the report, PEW in collaboration with the Universities Oxford and Leeds, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, Common Seas and Systemiq have outlined some direct action that can be taken to reduce this pollution.

Sarah Balch explained: ‘There are eight measures that could enable us to achieve an 80% reduction in plastic pollution by 2040:

  • Reduce growth in plastic consumption
  • Substitute plastic with other compostable materials
  • Design products and packaging for recycling
  • Scale-up waste collection rates in middle/low-income countries
  • Double global mechanical recycling infrastructure
  • Develop plastic-to-plastic conversion
  • Dispose properly of the 23% of plastics that cannot be recycled
  • Reduce waste exports

‘Innovation will play a key role in all of these interventions, for example, refill systems and new delivery models, new materials, and coming up with innovative collection systems.’

However, Sarah has highlighted that in order to achieve this we need a global and cohesive response.

‘We have seen a huge raft of corporate commitments in recent years on plastic pollution.

‘But these corporate commitments and government initiatives will only reduce the expected plastic usage by 7% – it is clear that much greater action is needed,’ she said.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also sparked further concern over increased pollution from medical waste.

‘To date, medical waste has never been a huge source of pollution but that has quickly changed, said Sarah.

‘We need to focus on only using plastic where it is essential and necessary and of course, medical resources and PPE are one of these.

‘But when we can we should always use reusable materials for face masks.’

Another problem that the report highlights is the issue of waste exports. In 2018, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of recovered plastic packaging to other countries, with the majority of this waste going to Malaysia, Turkey and Indonesia.

‘When waste is exported there is often a lack of oversight about what happens when the waste reaches the other countries, but we know that this waste then leaks into the environment because it is contaminated or too low quality to be recycled,’ said Sarah.

‘We need to see much stronger monitoring of what is being exported and a progressive reduction in our exports overseas.’

‘If our plastic consumption continues on this trajectory we are seeing even more plastic in the environment.
A key priority is that we need to focus on reducing the growth in plastic production – if we have an oversupply of cheap plastic in the market there is a risk that it could undermine recycling and reduction efforts.

So really focusing on how to reduce our consumption of plastics in the next five years will be really key to turning the tide on this issue.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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Pippa Neill

Pippa Neill

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