To Solve the Ocean Plastics Problem, the World Needs a Plan

Pew and partners launch initiative to reduce costly, destructive pollution

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To Solve the Ocean Plastics Problem, the World Needs a Plan
Ocean plastics
A man stands amid plastic waste on a beach in Mumbai, India, on June 30, 2019. The trash was pushed onto Juhu Beach by a recent storm.
Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Beaches littered with soda bottles and single-use takeout containers; rivers choked with plastic bags and cups; microplastics found in the deepest part of the ocean. These distressing and all-too-common reports aren’t isolated: About one truckload of plastic waste is dumped into our ocean every minute, according to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum. And if things don’t change, that number could increase to four truckloads per minute by 2050.

All of this plastic is having harmful impacts on marine life. A recent report from the Convention on Biological Diversity found that between 2012 and 2016, the number of species documented to have been affected by marine debris, of which plastic is the predominant source, has risen to 817; the primary impacts are from ingestion, entanglement, and habitat damage or destruction.

Ocean plastics
A tractor moves a pile of recyclables at a recycling center in the United States in 2008.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Plastic pollution is also taking a toll on people and society. According to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme, the estimated cost of ocean plastic pollution on fishing, tourism, and shipping is at least $13 billion annually. And experts do not yet fully understand how all of this pollution is affecting—or will affect—human health.

Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced, approximately only 9 percent has been recycled and an estimated 60 percent has been discarded, with some ending up polluting our rivers and the ocean. The amount of plastic entering the ocean is projected to double in the next five years.

Ocean plastics
A man collects plastics in a river covered by garbage in Bekasi, West Java, Indonesia.
Andrew Gal/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The enormity of this problem has led The Pew Charitable Trusts to undertake a two-year initiative to identify the most effective strategies to address the marine plastic problem. Working with the global consulting firm SYSTEMIQ, we are conducting a global analysis that will quantify the ocean plastic pollution between 2016 and 2040 under different scenarios. We are also engaging with Duke University on a global plastics policy analysis that considers the responses to this issue by a range of governments around the world.

Separately, Pew is working with a broad range of stakeholders to develop an evidence-based global roadmap for reducing marine plastic pollution. We expect to release that roadmap in mid-2020.

Winnie Lau is a senior officer for Pew’s efforts to prevent ocean plastics.

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