Water bottles, packing peanuts, and other types of plastic could outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050 if humans keep polluting the seas at current rates, according to a new Ellen MacArthur Foundation and World Economic Forum report.
Entitled "The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics," the report contains plenty of sickening statistics about the amount of plastic polluting the ocean, like how 150 million tons of plastic are floating in areas like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where sea currents cause floating plastic to accumulate.
"We live in a plastic age," said Charles Moore, a sailor who founded Algalita Marine Research and Education and helped discover the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. "It's the material that defines our age. Yet the average person in the Stone Age knew what to do with stones more than people in the plastic age. You need a university degree just to figure out how to recycle the stuff."
Worse, the amount of plastic in the ocean is growing fast. Eight million tons leak into the ocean annually, the equivalent of a garbage truck backing up on a dock and dumping a full load of plastic trash every minute into the waves, according to the report. That rate is forecast to quadruple in the next 34 years as people use more plastic, the report said.
Eliminating the plastic industry and consumers' wasteful practices, especially when it comes to plastic packaging, is one solution to the problem, the report argued.
People use around 95 percent of plastic packaging once before they throw it away, the report found. That packaging is worth as much as $120 billion a year.
Almost a third never makes it to a landfill or recycling facility, meaning it's either littering the streets or wilderness or floating somewhere. The costs of dealing with plastic pollution, including damaged ecosystems, urban blight and the carbon emissions from making the plastic, are around $40 billion annually, according to the report.
Meanwhile, plastic packaging generates $26 to $39 billion a year in profits, the report found, meaning the industry earns less than the costs everyone bears from improperly disposing of the plastic that surrounds toys, food, medicines, and other products.
"This report demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy," said Dominic Waughray, a member of the World Economic Forum's executive committee, in a press release.
Recyclers today receive around only 14 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging generated worldwide every year, the report said. Forty percent goes to landfills.
The report's authors say the plastics industry needs to use more recycled plastic for packaging and start producing plastic from biological materials rather than oil and natural gas. Everyone else, meanwhile, needs to make sure more plastic makes it to recyclers rather than waterways that lead to the ocean.
"The overarching vision of the New Plastics Economy is that plastics never become waste; rather, they re-enter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients," the report states.
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The plastics industry welcomed the report.
"The industry cares deeply about plastics in the ocean. If there is anybody who doesn't want to see plastics in the ocean, it's us," Patty Long, senior vice president of industry affairs at the Plastics Industry Trade Association, said.
People demonize plastics, but they're popular and cheap because they're lighter to transport and requite less energy to produce than heavier materials like wood or metal, she explained.
"Plastics has some great sustainability benefits," said Long. "Are there challenges related to end of life? Heck yes."
Moore acknowledged that many actors — manufacturers, consumers, governments — were to blame for plastic polluting the oceans. But he was skeptical that the anyone could change the situation given the economics of producing, recycling, and collecting plastic.
The price of oil plummeted to less than $27 on Wednesday, the lowest price since 2003. At that price, the cost of the raw petrochemicals required to make plastic is cheaper than using recycled material. Nobody is going to recycle more or change their consuming habits under those conditions. The government needs to crack down on the plastic market to enact change, Moore argued.
"We need a political revolution," said Moore. "If the market is going to be God and that's the only way we move, as the market moves, then the environment hasn't got a chance."
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