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Our Ocean Is Choking on Plastic—But It’s a Problem We Can Solve

April 8, 2022 By: Winnie Lau, Ph.D. Read time:

In this Issue:

  • Winter 2022
  • A New Generation's Ocean Literacy
  • Coastal Blue Carbon
  • How to Reverse the Ocean-Climate Crisis
  • How We Can Avoid the 'Danger Zone' of Climate Change
  • How We Can Help Marine Protected Areas Save Our Ocean
  • Indigenous Knowledge Is Essential for the Future of the Ocean
  • The Ocean Is in Trouble
  • Our Ocean Is Choking on Plastic
  • The Global Ocean
  • When Too Many Boats Chase Too Few Fish
  • View All Other Issues
Our Ocean Is Choking on Plastic—But It’s a Problem We Can Solve
A new analytical tool can show the main sources of plastic pollution and help governments determine how to best reduce the amount that is reaching the ocean.

Our ocean—all 140 million square miles of it—has a plastic pollution problem. This is the case in places where one might expect it—from the waters lapping at megacities to the world’s most polluted river deltas—but also in areas that might surprise people, such as the deepest trenches in the sea and the world’s most remote coastlines.

Some 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic every minute. A 2020 Pew-authored report, “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” projected that the inflow will increase to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040 without ambitious action. Unfortunately, the report showed that commitments made to date by governments and industry, such as bans on plastic bags and straws, will have only an incremental impact on those numbers. If humanity is serious about tackling this problem, we need large-scale, systemic change, with governments and businesses of all sizes doing their parts.

Among the many obstacles to raising awareness of this challenge is that most people in the world cannot see the extent of the ocean plastic pollution problem. Even while standing on a beach, we might notice a few straws, bottle caps, and long-forgotten toys at the tide line, but we can still gaze out over the ocean and conclude that it’s beautiful, pristine, and thriving. What we don’t see is the pervasive pollution beneath the surface or the trillions of microplastic particles, from vehicle tires, textiles, and other sources, suspended from the surface to the seafloor.

A big challenge will be to untangle our economy and daily lives from a throwaway culture. Plastic is all around us, in our homes, vehicles, food and beverage containers, personal effects, clothing, shoes, toiletries, eyewear, furniture, and much more. A 2017 report in The Guardian found that around the world people purchase 1 million plastic bottles every minute.

Plastic is also now in our bodies, at least temporarily. It’s in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe. In a potentially ominous sign, a study published last year found traces of plastic in a human placenta, meaning that we are not only ingesting particles but potentially passing them on to the next generation. The human health implications of all of this are just beginning to be understood.

Our collective consumption of plastic and the cheap cost of producing goods with it compared with most other materials continues to drive production and limit large-scale action by governments to constrict the making, selling, or use of plastic.

In recent decades, many (although far from all) governments, businesses, and consumers have viewed recycling as the answer. In many communities, residents dutifully fill recycling bins, which are, in turn, dutifully emptied by waste management workers, and we believe that the problem goes away.

A wide angle lens shot of waves filled with trash crashing on beach.
Srikanth Mannepuri Ocean Image Bank

Except it doesn’t. Worldwide, only 9% of plastic makes it to a recycling plant. And for much plastic pollution—on land and in the sea—recycling was never an economically viable option to begin with. This includes microplastics, particles 5 millimeters or less in width, such as those generated from vehicle tires and some textiles or added to liquid soaps and shampoos. In fact, microplastics are a huge part of the marine plastic pollution problem because they can mimic fish eggs and other tiny organisms and are thus consumed by sea life. Once microplastics reach the ocean, they’re nearly impossible to filter out without great cost or damage to marine life, so they become a near-permanent feature of the ecosystem.

But as noted in “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” humanity can reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean by up to 80% by 2040 through a set of actions led by governments and industry—the two entities with the most power to effect large-scale change. And, to reiterate an overarching finding of the report, there are no quick or simple fixes to this mass problem—but humanity can solve the ocean plastic puzzle in one generation with a concerted, broad-based, and long-term effort.

For governments, the first step is grasping where the plastic is coming from and how it is moving from production to, eventually, the ocean. And this is one of the ways that Pew can help. In the coming months, we will launch the second generation of a tool that governments can use to determine the extent of their country’s plastic pollution problem and use that information to guide action.

This tool, which was originally developed by Pew and the London-based consultancy SYSTEMIQ, has now been turned into an independent software application by our partner Richard Bailey at the University of Oxford. The tool analyzes country data to show the main sources of plastic pollution and help governments determine how to best reduce the amount that is reaching the ocean.

For example, a country could enter its data into the software application and indicate where it’s considering different changes—for example, by increasing recycling rates or reducing use of plastic packaging. The tool then provides bespoke guidance on which shifts would have the biggest impact on the amount of the country’s plastic flowing into the ocean.

As Linda Godfrey, an ocean plastics researcher and one of our partners in South Africa, says, “We’re hopeful the new model can actually provide us with trade-offs, such as saying what combination would give us the least leakage of plastic into the environment with the greatest opportunity for climate mitigation and the greatest opportunity for job creation.”

An under water image of trash floating in the ocean.
Naja Bertolt Jensen Ocean Image Bank

Pew is looking to partner with five national governments to use the new tool to develop evidence-based policies that can both serve as models for other countries looking to tackle plastic pollution and inform international and multilateral strategies. At the same time, we are either involved in or closely watching policy action at three institutions with the stature to move the needle on this problem.

One is the European Union (EU) government, which is drafting legislation to curtail microplastic pollution. The EU, with a population of 740 million, is among the world’s major producers of plastics, and the government is working with stakeholders to explore policy options to manage “unintended microplastics” —those that are generated during use of products, such as microfibers from clothes we wear or tire particles from driving cars. The EU is considering policies to better quantify microplastics generation, increase transparency—for example, through improved labeling requirements—or capture microplastics, such as requiring installation of filters in washing machines. 

At the World Trade Organization (WTO), a group of member countries launched an “Informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade,” known as the IDP, in 2020 to explore options for addressing this challenge—on land and in the ocean. Pew will support a subset of countries to identify and implement model trade policies and offer our expertise to members of the dialogue. Potential avenues that the IDP could take include adopting measures to reduce trade in problematic plastics, promote trade in technology that supports reduction of plastic pollution, help build capacity—for example, in countries that lack the resources needed to recycle—and improve the transparency and monitoring of plastic trade.

And on March 2 at the U.N. Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, representatives from 175 governments adopted a landmark resolution to launch negotiations on an international binding treaty to control plastic pollution. Pew plans to share our research findings, policy options, and recommendations to inform the treaty negotiations. This resolution is a big step forward for the world in tackling plastic pollution. As U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in relation to the treaty, “As we know, our health—our survival—is bound up in the health of our oceans. We have to do more to protect them.”

The U.S. needs to be a leader in these negotiations, in no small part because of the outsize role the country has played in the plastic problem. In December, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report that found that, in 2016, the U.S. generated more plastic waste than any other country—and more than all EU member states combined. In fact, Americans generate 4.5 to 6 pounds of solid waste every day, or up to eight times what people in many other countries generate. And the National Academies report noted that U.S. plastic production has consistently increased each year since the 1960s.

An underwater image of a fish swimming around plastic trash.
Naja Bertolt Jensen Ocean Image Bank

The report called on the U.S. to create a national strategy by the end of 2022 to address the problem, including by “substantially reducing” the amount of solid waste the country generates. The report also recommends that the U.S. establish “a nationally coordinated and expanded monitoring system” to track plastic pollution, which, in turn, should help leaders better grasp the scale of the challenge and set appropriate policies for addressing it.

Another line of work that Pew will undertake supports efforts to track plastic in the economy to better manage plastic production, use, and waste generation. Pew, in conjunction with several partners, will develop a reporting system for businesses to disclose their plastic usage and to track changes over time, much like some do now for carbon and water. This voluntary system should allow businesses to see if they’re meeting their commitments and better identify where they could improve. It should also help investors identify businesses with the least risks, and better enable governments to identify where policies can accelerate actions.

And although it’s clear that humanity can reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean, no one group can do it alone. Success will require cooperation between and among governments, industry, scientists, nongovernmental organizations, and consumers, as well as between businesses at all stages of the plastic design, production, sales, use, and post-use continuum. No group can sit on the sidelines expecting that the others will move toward success without support.

We have the technology and policy structure to reduce plastic pollution—if we have the will.

For example, among the interventions we called for in “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” the one with the biggest potential to reduce plastic waste is reducing plastic production and consumption. This step would require companies to redesign their products and packaging to use less plastic or reuse plastic and for consumers to adopt those changes. Such actions could potentially lessen plastic waste generation by 30% by 2040.

Also, improved recycling—mainly through product and packaging redesign and doubling mechanical recycling capacity worldwide—could yield an additional 20% drop. And manufacturers can collaborate with recyclers to redesign products for maximum recyclability.

Addressing ocean plastic pollution now can also bring numerous other benefits. In “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” we found that global projected plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by up to 25% by 2040 if the world could decrease plastic production through our modeled interventions, and that governments around the world could save $70 billion in waste management costs during that span. In this optimal scenario, the private sector could seize emerging business opportunities as well as work with governments on improved oversight and funding of the waste sector. And industry could reassess its plans to avoid lost investment in new plastic infrastructure.

Although realizing these gains will be neither easy nor simple, they are achievable—and humanity already has the technologies and policy structures needed to do so. It is work we know we must pursue, for the sake of the ocean, and the countless people—including future generations—that need a healthy marine environment to survive and to thrive.

Ocean, People, Planet
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The ocean covers nearly three-fourths of the Earth. Vast and powerful, it is central to the life of everyone on the planet, supplying more than half of the world’s oxygen, providing food, recreation, and supporting economic vitality. Yet for all its seeming invincibility, the ocean has never been more in danger. Its very chemistry is changing as ocean waters become more acidified through climate change. Its inhabitants—from large sharks to tiny crustaceans the size of a human finger—are under assault with XX percent of fish stocks overfished. And ocean levels continue to rise, challenging the barriers separating people from water.

Winnie Lau directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ preventing ocean plastics project.

An illustration of the globe, centered on Antarctica.
An illustration of the globe, centered on Antarctica.
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