Amount of plastics in oceans will quadruple by 2040, major new research finds

The world's plastic pollution problem is vastly outpacing efforts to stop it, meaning that the volume of plastics in oceans globally will be four times higher in 2040 than in 2016, new research backed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has concluded.

Current commitments would only affect 7% of annual plastic production by 2040, the report warns

Current commitments would only affect 7% of annual plastic production by 2040, the report warns

Dubbed ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’, the research was carried out by a consortium of experts from the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, using tools from innovation catalyst firms Systemiq and Common Seas.

It found that, despite increasing numbers of pledges by corporates and governments aimed at stemming plastic pollution – and higher ambition levels of such pledges – they will ultimately fail to solve the problem. On a business-as-usual trajectory, based on current policy packages and corporate targets, the volume of plastic on the market will double within 20 years.

At the same time, the volume of plastic entering oceans and waterways will triple, and the global ocean plastic stock will quadruple.

The research paper then goes on to set out an alternative trajectory, in which a “comprehensive” circular economy for plastics is created globally. Such systems would not only cap plastic pollution but save $200bn (£157bn) in reduced materials costs, healthcare costs and pollution cleanup costs; create 700,000 net additional jobs and reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of the plastics sector by a quarter, the report states.

According to the report, a comprehensive circular economy for plastics is based around three pillars: elimination, circulation and innovation.

Elimination would see all plastics which are “unnecessary” removed from the global economy, with phase-outs going beyond token items like straws and cotton buds. Wherever possible, products should be delivered to customers without packaging or in reusable packaging and, where plastic packaging is necessary, it should be widely recycled and contain a high proportion of recycled content. Adequate elimination would see plastic use cut by 50% within 20 years.

Circulation is about “rapidly” redesigning all plastic products which are not yet widely recyclable, compostable or reusable, while scaling up investment in recycling infrastructure and systems. Investment should reach $30bn (£27.5bn) per year by 2040 if infrastructure gaps are to be closed. At the same time, policymakers must design mechanisms that improve the economics of recycling and make the economics of landfilling worse, such as Extended Producer Responsibility schemes (EPR).

While praising progress to date on the development of innovative collection and processing systems, the report argues that not enough R&D funding has been allocated to the design of new products and business models which ensure the elimination and circulation of packaging. The plastics and waste management industries should up R&D spending to $100bn per annum (£78.6bn) – quadruple the current level.

“There is no single solution,” the report concludes. “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.”

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation said that the research confirmed its earlier and much-quoted finding that, without transformational action, there will be more plastics in oceans than fish by 2050, on the basis of weight.

Findings were also broadly in line with conclusions recently drawn by WWF, which is warning that a further 104 million tonnes of plastic will “leak” into ecosystems by 2030 in a ‘business-as-usual’ trajectory.

Going with the flow

The publication of the ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ analysis comes shortly after separate studies revealed the extent of plastic pollution in the river Thames.

Conducted by researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, in collaboration with the Natural History Museum and the Zoological Society of London, the research found that 94,000 microplastic particles and 5,000 microbeads flow down the river at Greenwich every second. This quantity is far higher than has been recorded in rivers such as the Danube and Rhine.

Many animals are feeling the adverse impacts of this plastic pollution, the studies found, with 75% of flounder and 95% of crabs in the Thames having ingested plastic.

Of the microplastics analysed, the vast majority (93.5% were formed from larger plastic items). The most common source was food packaging, but other common offenders included wet wipes, sanitary towels and tampon packaging, balloons, elastic bands and carrier bags.

Sarah George



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