Over a Billion Metric Tons of Plastic Could Take Over the World by 2040

The worst-case scenario is bleak, but the actual future does not need to be.
For illustrative purposes only. Photo: Tom Fisk from Pexels

Plastic pollution has been found in almost every corner of the world, including the Arctic Ocean. If we don’t act now, a new study found that land and water bodies could be polluted with 1.3 billion metric tons of plastic by 2040.

A team of global experts reported this in a journal article titled “Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution,” published on Science on July 23. They arrived at this number by creating a mathematical model that predicts how much plastic the world would produce between 2016 and 2040.


They came up with eight “geographic archetypes” that represented the different ways places around the world manage their trash. For example, a “high-income urban” area would have a different trash management method from one that is “low-income urban.”

The researchers looked at eight solutions: reducing plastic quantity in the system, substituting plastics with alternative materials and delivery systems, implementing design for recycling, increasing collection capacity, scaling-up sorting and mechanical recycling capacity, scaling-up chemical conversion capacity, reducing post-collection environmental leakage, and reducing trade in plastic waste.

They found that the world’s best bet to effectively reduce plastic waste is to integrate all these possible approaches.

They used the same model to predict the future based on five different waste reduction and management scenarios and found that even with immediate and concerted action to reduce plastic, approximately 710 million tonnes of plastic waste will still be released into the environment in 20 years.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. While that’s still a lot of plastic, it’s also an approximately 80 percent reduction, compared to if we don’t do anything.

This is especially important now since the ongoing pandemic has only made things worse for the environment. Overall plastic consumption has increased, as people turn to single-use products to decrease the chances of virus transmission. Images of discarded face masks floating in the ocean have surfaced on the internet, and according to French nonprofit organization Operation Mer Propre, they’ve spotted gloves and masks in the Mediterranean Sea.

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