A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts offers a stark assessment of what will happen to plastic in the ocean without major new action: It will nearly triple by 2040, and all the commitments made so far from government and industry will barely dent that.
What's needed, it argues, is a major change in how plastics are used. The report, which is being launched with endorsements from companies like PepsiCo Inc. and Mars, tries to strike an optimistic tone around reducing waste to the ocean, arguing that the right choices can cut the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean by 80 percent.
It argues that what's needed is vigorously applying current technologies and making different policy choices. Pew and its partners released the "Breaking the Plastic Wave" report July 23.
"We have today all the solutions required to stem the plastic flows by more than 80 percent," said Martin Stuchtey, managing partner of consulting firm Systemiq and one of the co-authors. "What we need now is the industry and government resolve to do so."
The report, which said it's the first to give detailed assessments of how to cut those flows, estimated that absent major changes in plastic waste management, the amount going to the oceans, will nearly triple by 2040, from 11 million metric tons to 29 million tonnes.
All the currently announced industry and government commitments would only reduce that by 7 percent, the report said.
But the steps needed to get to the 80 percent reduction includes some ideas not likely to sit well with the plastics industry, or at the very least require some major rethinking.
It recommends, for example, that governments and investors curtail planned expansions of virgin plastics production.
It says the plastics industry can still prosper in that scenario, if it switches from a business model based on fossil fuel extraction to one based on finding economic value recirculating materials through the economy.
"Today, plastic pollution presents a unique risk for producers and users of virgin plastics given regulatory changes and growing consumer outrage," the report said. "But it is also a unique opportunity for companies ahead of the curve, ready to unlock value from a circular economy that derives revenue from the circulation of materials rather than the extraction and conversion of fossil fuels."
The report says it's possible to achieve substantial reductions in plastic pollution by focusing on six packaging categories: multilayer and multimaterial flexibles, business-to-business packaging, films, bottles, carrier bags and foodservice disposables.
It targets keeping per-person global plastic consumption in 2040 roughly equal to current levels, rather than the nearly 60 percent increased called for in some models.
"The focus is on the transition away from plastics that have a short period of use, such as packaging and disposable items, which are low-value applications and a key driver of ocean plastic pollution," the report said. "This system intervention does not demand a reduction in general consumption, but rather an elimination of avoidable plastic and a shift towards products and services based on reuse that deliver equivalent utility."
The report outlines six scenarios, from a baseline scenario of little change to what it calls a "total overhaul" of the world's plastics production, consumption, collection, disposal and recycling.
It estimates that without meaningful change, 4 billion people around the world will still be without organized waste collection by 2040, contributing significantly to ocean pollution.
There are many reports issued around plastics pollution, but the Pew effort, done in collaboration with Systemiq, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and several universities, includes comments from CEOs at PepsiCo and Mars.
That suggests that its ideas are at least going to get a hearing at high levels among key customers of the plastics industry.
"We applaud the depth and rigor of this report on what's necessary to stop ocean plastic pollution," said Grant Reid, CEO of Mars Inc. "Mars is committed to being a part of the transformational system change that this issue requires. We're taking action by removing packaging we don't need, exploring reuse models, redesigning what we do need for circularity and investing to close the packaging waste loop with recycling systems that work for business and communities."
As well, a July 24 webinar to launch the report publicly includes the CEO of Unilever, Alan Jope, as well as the former president of Costa Rica and CEO of the UN Global Compact, a voluntary United Nations effort of business environmental commitments. Unilever last year said it was going to cut its virgin plastics use in half by 2025.
The American Chemistry Council responded to the Pew report with a July 24 statement saying that resin manufacturers agree that plastic waste is a significant global problem, and that there is an urgent need to invest in waste management infrastructure. But it cautioned against replacing single-use plastic with other materials, noting that alternative materials could raise environmental costs nearly fourfold, including significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions.