Plastic pollution is a huge problem—and it’s not too late to fix it

Correcting our plastic waste problem requires a fundamental change in thinking about how plastics are made, used, and discarded, two new studies say.

The global campaign to gain control of plastic waste is one of the fastest-growing environmental causes ever mounted. Yet it hasn’t been enough to make a dent in the growing tonnage of discarded plastic that ends up in the seas.

In the next 10 years, the waste that slides into waterways, and ultimately the oceans , will reach 22 million tons and possibly as much as 58 million tons a year. And that’s the “good” news—because that estimate takes into account thousands of ambitious commitments by government and industry to reduce plastic pollution.

Without those pledges, a business-as-usual scenario would be almost twice as bad. With no improvements to managing waste beyond what’s already in place today, 99 million tons of uncontrolled plastic waste would end up in the environment by 2030.

These two scenarios, the result of new research by an international team of scientists, are a far cry from the first global tally published in 2015, which estimated that an average of 8.8 million tons flow into the oceans annually. That was a figure so startling to the world when it was published five years ago, it helped invigorate the plastic trash movement.

Jenna Jambeck, the University of Georgia engineering professor who calculated that number, also came up with a vivid analogy to put it in context. It would be the equivalent of one dump truck tipping a load of plastic into the ocean every minute every day for a year. Jambeck is also part of the team that came up with the new calculations. But coming up with a new way to visualize 22 to 58 million tons proved a challenge.

“I don’t know. We’re getting into the realm of what’s incomprehensible,” she says. “How about a football stadium filled with plastic every day? Or enough plastic to cover Rhode Island or the country of Luxembourg ankle deep?”

Neither of these new analogies, while accurate, capture the magnitude of what’s at stake. (More: We're drowning in plastic—find out why. )

Like climate change, a lot rides on how the global community responds in the next couple of decades. And, though the parallels between the problem of plastic waste and climate change are obvious—both are rooted in oil, the basic ingredient to make plastics, they are dissimilar in one key way: plastic’s persistence. While there is some possibility, however remote, that technology and restoration of natural ecosystems could remove CO 2 from the atmosphere, there is no such analog for plastic. Virtually indestructible, it doesn’t disappear.

“For me, the biggest issue is the question of permanence,” says George Leonard , the Ocean Conservancy’s chief scientist and a member of the team that produced this newest forecast. “If we don’t get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales. And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late. We will not be able to go back. That massive amount of plastic will be embedded in the ocean’s wildlife essentially forever.”

The power of two

The analysis is the second in recent weeks to look ahead to the future of the plastic economy and conclude that correcting the waste problem—40 percent of plastic manufactured today is disposable packaging—requires a fundamental change in thinking about how plastics are made, used, and discarded.

The new findings were made by a team of scientists funded by the National Science Foundation through the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center ( SESYNC ). The other project, which looks ahead to 2040, was led by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, a London-based environmental advisory and investment firm, and was first made public in July. Both studies were published together in the journal Science in September.

What’s unusual is that two independent scientific working groups, using differing methodologies and timelines, reached the same broad conclusions. Both laid blame for the rising tonnage of plastic in the seas on the growth of plastic production that is outpacing the world’s ability to keep up with collecting plastic trash. They also agreed that reducing surging waste requires reducing surging production of virgin plastic.

“The magnitude of the problem is the same. The difference is in methodology,” says Stephanie Borrelle, a marine biologist in New Zealand and lead author of the SESYNC study. “We have to do something about this and do it soon. Our annual count of leakage doesn’t account for what’s already in the oceans.”

Both projects also concluded that plastic waste could be significantly reduced, though not eliminated, using existing technologies. That includes improving waste collection and recycling, redesigning products to eliminate packaging made from unrecyclable plastics, expanding refillables, and in some cases substituting other materials. But solutions such as recycling, now globally hovering around 12 percent, would also require a massive scaling-up with many additional recycling facilities that don’t exist.

The SESYNC project also calls for cleaning up plastic waste from shorelines, where possible. To give an idea of the scale involved in achieving that goal, it would require a billion people to participate in the Ocean Conservancy’s annual beach cleanup that now attracts about one million volunteers.

“The inconvenient truth now is that this business-as-usual growth in production of new plastics is not compatible with ending plastics in nature,” says Ben Dixon, a former sustainability manager at Royal Dutch Shell and partner at SYSTEMIQ. “That’s the inconvenient truth both studies get to the heart of. We may see more pressures from investors, customers, and a changing of the world underneath the feet of these companies.”

Both projects captured the attention of the plastics industry, which was quick to praise the research, but dismissed the idea of reducing production of virgin plastic as “highly counterproductive and impractical,” in the words of the American Chemistry Council, a trade group for the petrochemical industry. In emailed responses, ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, two of the world’s leading manufacturers of polyethylene, agreed.

“Reducing production to solve the waste problem will, in turn, aggravate the carbon and climate problem as alternative materials have higher emissions,” Dow said.

The manufacturing of plastic emits less CO2 and uses less water than for glass or aluminum. Some argue that such accounting doesn’t always factor in all the costs, such as environmental cleanup and weight. Glass manufacturing emits less CO2 per gram, but glass bottles are heavier. And, in the marine world, they say, it’s beside the point: Turtles eat plastic bags, not glass bottles and aluminum cans.

Todd Spitler, an Exxon spokesman, said the company’s focus will be on “increasing plastic recyclability, supporting improvements in plastic waste recovery and minimizing plastic pellet loss from our operations."

The SESYNC study calls for setting global limits on the production of virgin plastic, a recommendation unlikely to be realized. At the last United Nations Environmental Program meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2019, negotiations to pass a resolution calling for phasing out single-use plastic by 2025 and to draft a legally binding treaty on plastic debris ended in a stalemate.

The Pew/SYSTEMIQ study calls for reducing virgin production by 11 percent, arguing there is enough waste plastic that could be recycled and remade into new plastic to satisfy demand. The problem is that virgin plastic—new resin created from natural gas or oil—is so cheap to make that it undermines the economics of the recycling market. It is simply less expensive to manufacture new plastic than to collect, sort, and process disposable plastic into new feedstock. Especially now, with the collapse of oil prices. (Read more on the SYSTEMIQ study here.)

Plastic production to increase by 2050

In fact, production is forecast to more than double by 2050—increasing to 756 million tons anticipated in 2050 from 308 million tons produced in 2018, according to a report published by the American Chemistry Council in 2019. In the United States, $203 billion has been invested in 343 new or expanded chemical plants to produce plastics, according to ACC figures published last February. Production capacity for ethylene and propylene is projected to increase by 33 to 36 percent, according to an estimate by the Center for International Environmental Law.

Keith Christman , the ACC’s managing director of plastics markets, says the demand for plastic products, such as lightweight automobile parts and materials used in home construction, including insulation and water piping, is only going to grow.

“New technologies is the direction that we see the industry going,” he says.

Historically, plastic production has increased almost continuously since the 1950s, from 1.8 million tons in 1950 to 465 million tons in 2018. As of 2017, 7 billion of the 8.8 billion tons produced globally over that whole period have become waste.

The industry attributes future growth to two factors: the increasing global population and demands for more plastic consumer goods, fueled by the increasing buying power of a growing middle class. The UN projects that the world’s population, now about 7.8 billion, will add about two billion more by 2050, primarily in Asia and Africa. Globally, the middle class is anticipated to expand by 400 million households by 2039—and that is where the plastics market growth will occur.

Africa, to cite one example, shows the complications that lie ahead for gaining control of plastic waste in the coming decades. The continent today generates waste at a low rate by global standards, according to a UN report published last year. It also has limited environmental regulations, weak enforcement, and inadequate systems in place to manage waste. But as its population explodes and becomes more urban, and as buying habits change with higher standards of living, sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to become the dominant region producing municipal waste.

“Everyone is going to need to play a role along the whole value chain,” says Guy Bailey , a leading plastics analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm specializing in energy, chemicals, mining and other research.

“If you are a recycler, it is difficult to make an investment when oil prices completely destroy the economics of your business. If you are a packing company, you are faced with so many choices of materials, it’s hard to know which to pick. If you are a chemical company, you clearly can see the reputational challenge. They risk losing their social license to operate if things go too far. They want to address those challenges.”

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, founded last year by 50 industry titans, committed to investing $1.5 billion in creating solutions to improve methods for collecting plastic waste and recycling into new products. So far, it has launched 14 projects, many in Southeast Asia and Africa, including in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Ghana.

Jacob Duer, president and CEO, said the new report “reiterates the necessity and the urgency in addressing the issue and underlines the importance of a paradigm shift.”

As the organization, based in Singapore, matures, he says the number of projects and capital investment will grow. But it opposes reducing virgin plastic production.

Both Duer and Martyn Ticknet, head of the Alliance’s project development, see similarities between tackling plastic waste and global efforts to close the hole in the ozone layer that began in the 1970s. Last year the hole had shrunk to its smallest size on record since its discovery.

“We’ve solved major crises before,” Ticknet says. “It takes some time to get going.”

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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Your environment. your health., new study finds ocean pollution a threat to human health.

By Megan Avakian

empty plastic bottle on beach

While plastic debris is the most visible component of ocean pollution and is rapidly accumulating, it is the invisible chemicals, particles, metals, and biologic toxins that have been shown to affect human health. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Sheila/Pexels)

Ocean pollution poses a clear and present danger to human health and well-being, according to a new study from an international group of researchers. The study sounds the alarm that the growing global problem, which scientists are only beginning to understand, requires urgent and immediate action. It is a call to mobilize, say the authors who offer a path forward via pollution prevention and research recommendations.

“Ocean pollution is a widespread, worsening, and poorly controlled problem that is directly affecting human and ecosystem health,” said lead study author Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the Boston College Global Observatory on Pollution and Health. “It is a complex mix of toxins that, until now, has not received the systematic attention it deserves.”

The study, funded in part by NIEHS and coordinated by the Centre Scientifique de Monaco with support from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, is the first comprehensive examination of the impacts of ocean pollution on human health.

An Unjust Burden

Covering more than two-thirds of the planet, the oceans provide food, livelihoods, and cultural and recreational value to billions around the world. Ocean pollution, which stems primarily from human activities, threatens these many benefits.

More than 80% of ocean pollution comes from land-based sources, making its way to the seas through runoff, rivers, atmospheric deposition, and direct discharges. It is most highly concentrated along the coasts of low- and middle-income countries.

“Ocean pollution is deeply unjust. Its impacts fall most heavily on low-income countries, coastal fishing communities, people on small island nations, indigenous populations, and people in the high Arctic – groups that for the most part produce very little pollution themselves,” explained Landrigan. “These populations rely on the oceans for food. Their survival depends on the health of the seas.”

Multiple Pollutants, Multiple Health Effects

infographic showing the ocean pollution-berg with plastic waste, oil spills, mercury, chemicals, pesticides and nutrients

Ocean pollution is a complex mixture. Click image to enlarge. (Photo courtesy of Will Stahl-Timmins)

Ocean pollution is a complex mixture made up of mercury, plastic waste, manufactured chemicals, petroleum wastes, agricultural runoff, and biological threats, like harmful algal blooms. People are exposed to these toxins mainly by eating contaminated seafood.

Coal combustion is the major source of mercury pollution in the oceans. When coal is burned, mercury enters the atmosphere and eventually washes down into the sea. The authors noted that when a pregnant woman eats mercury-contaminated fish, the mercury can damage her child’s developing brain resulting in IQ loss and behavior problems. In adults, consumption of mercury-contaminated fish increases risk for heart disease and dementia.

Plastic waste makes up an estimated 80% of marine pollution. About 10 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year, killing seabirds, fish, and marine mammals. It breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics that absorb a range of chemicals floating in the marine environment, including pesticides and toxic metals. These chemical-laden particles are ingested by fish and shellfish and then passed on to seafood consuming humans. Microplastics may harm marine and human health, but the risks are still largely unknown.

“There's a lot of work needed to better understand the composition, toxicity, and potential human health impacts of microplastics, but it’s likely that it’s pretty substantial,” said Landrigan.

The chemicals used to manufacture a range of products, from consumer goods and food packaging to cleaning products and pesticides, also end up in the seas. The authors wrote that of the thousands of manufactured chemicals and chemical mixtures that pollute the world’s oceans, humans are most likely to be exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, brominated flame retardants, perfluorinated substances, and pesticides through eating contaminated seafood. These chemicals have been shown to cause a wide range of health effects in humans such as cardiovascular disease, developmental and neurobehavioral disorders, metabolic disease, immune dysfunction, endocrine disruption, and cancers.

Algae are essential components of aquatic food webs and ecosystems. But too much of a good thing can be toxic. Harmful algal blooms (HAB) occur when toxin-producing algae grow excessively in ocean waters. Warming sea waters make formerly unsuitable habitats habitable, leading to a range expansion of HAB species and the human populations they affect. Industrial waste, agricultural runoff, pesticides, and human sewage can all spur a HAB event. People are exposed to HAB toxins from eating contaminated fish and shellfish. These toxins can cause dementia, amnesia, other neurological damage, and death.

Climate Change Magnifies the Problem

“Ocean pollution and climate change are both components of planetary health. The two problems largely arise from the same source: the combustion of fossil fuels, coal, oil, and gas that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That in turn leads to a whole series of problems,” said Landrigan.

For example, a warmer climate melts glaciers and permafrost, freeing legacy pollutants from ice. Rising sea temperatures increase the number and expand the range of marine microbes that can cause disease. As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increase, so too does the amount that oceans absorb. This results in more acidic waters that can erode coral reefs and calcium containing organisms such as plankton that are the base of the marine food chain. Ocean acidification can also increase the toxicity of certain heavy metals and chemicals.

A Path Forward

The authors close with optimism and offer a series of case studies, policy, and research recommendations to save the planet’s oceans.

“The key thing to realize about ocean pollution is that, like all forms of pollution, it can be prevented using laws, policies, technology, and enforcement actions that target the most important pollution sources,” said Landrigan.

The authors call for eliminating coal combustion to reduce ocean bound mercury pollution and a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Banning single-use plastics, like straws and plastic bags, can reduce the amount of plastic pollution entering oceans. Controlling coastal pollution and expanding Marine Protected Areas, sometimes call the “national parks of the ocean,” can safeguard critical ecosystems, protect vulnerable fish stocks, and improve human health and well-being.

“Many countries have used these tools and have successfully cleaned fouled harbors, rejuvenated estuaries, and restored coral reefs. The results have been increased tourism, restored fisheries, improved human health, and economic growth. These benefits will last for centuries.”

A Role for Research

On the research side, the authors stress that a better understanding of the human health impacts of ocean pollution can provide the evidence base needed to inform protective policies. Among the research priorities, they call for improved ocean pollution monitoring, studies of human exposure to ocean pollutants and health effect biomarkers, and a better understanding of the effects of exposure to multiple ocean pollutants.

“There is a real need to better understand how exposure to mixtures, like ocean pollution, affect health. This is one area where I see the environmental health community playing a role in advancing ocean pollution and human health research,” said John Stegeman, Ph.D., second author on the paper and director of the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health, which is co-funded by NIEHS and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Another skill set environmental health scientists bring to the table is community engagement. “Globally, there is a need to involve communities and medical professionals in oceans research. NIEHS has long recognized the benefit of community engagement, and its grantees have developed community engagement best practices that could be key in helping us better understand and prevent ocean pollution exposures,” said Stegeman.

NIEHS has supported research on marine-related health issues since the 1970s. Grantees are studying coastal populations to better understand how people are exposed to ocean pollutants and health effects of exposure. They are exploring how climate change affects distribution and toxicity of HABs and developing sensors and technologies to better predict HAB events and prevent exposure. In 2004, NIEHS and the NSF launched the Centers for Oceans and Human Health program that funds interdisciplinary research centers around the country.

Stegeman concluded that “Understanding ocean pollution is a highly interdisciplinary endeavor. In our center, we have basic biomedical scientists, toxicologists, biological and physical oceanographers, environmental modelers, chemists, and engineers all working together. It takes a collaborative environment like that created through the NIEHS-NSF Centers for Oceans and Human Health program to fully understand how our oceans impact human health.”

NIEHS identifies Global Environmental Health (GEH) as a part of its strategic themes, recognizing that because environmental health problems cross national boundaries, conducting studies around the world benefits not just those in areas being studied, but all people who suffer from the same or related environmental health problems.

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Plastic pollution and potential solutions

A review is presented of the manufacture and use of different types of plastic, and the effects of pollution by these materials on animal, human and environmental health, insofar as this is known. Since 2004, the world has made as much plastic as it did in the previous half century, and it has been reckoned that the total mass of virgin plastics ever made amounts to 8.3 billion tonnes, mainly derived from natural gas and crude oil, used as chemical feedstocks and fuel sources. Between 1950 and 2015, a total of 6.3 billion tonnes of primary and secondary (recycled) plastic waste was generated, of which around 9% has been recycled, and 12% incinerated, with the remaining 79% either being stored in landfills or having been released directly into the natural environment. In 2015, 407 million tonnes (Mt) of plastic was produced, of which 164 Mt was consumed by packaging (36% of the total). Although quoted values vary, packaging probably accounts for around one third of all plastics used, of which approximately 40% goes to landfill, while 32% escapes the collection system. It has been deduced that around 9 Mt of plastic entered the oceans in 2010, as a result of mismanaged waste, along with up to 0.5 Mt each of microplastics from washing synthetic textiles, and from the abrasion of tyres on road surfaces. However, the amount of plastics actually measured in the oceans represents less than 1% of the (at least) 150 Mt reckoned to have been released into the oceans over time. Plastic accounts for around 10% by mass of municipal waste, but up to 85% of marine debris items - most of which arrive from land-based sources. Geographically, the five heaviest plastic polluters are P. R. China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, which between them contribute 56% of global plastic waste. Larger, primary plastic items can undergo progressive fragmentation to yield a greater number of increasingly smaller 'secondary' microplastic particles, thus increasing the overall surface area of the plastic material, which enhances its ability to absorb, and concentrate, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), with the potential to transfer them to the tissues of animals that ingest the microplastic particles, particularly in marine environments. Although fears that such microparticles and their toxins may be passed via food webs to humans are not as yet substantiated, the direct ingestion of microplastics by humans via drinking water is a distinct possibility - since 92% of samples taken in the USA and 72% in Europe showed their presence - although any consequent health effects are as yet unclear. Foodstuffs may also become contaminated by microplastics from the air, although any consequent health effects are also unknown. In regard to such airborne sources, it is noteworthy that small plastic particles have been found in human lung tissue, which might prove an adverse health issue under given circumstances. It is also very striking that microplastics have been detected in mountain soils in Switzerland, which are most likely windborne in origin. Arctic ice core samples too have revealed the presence of microplastics, which were most likely carried on ocean currents from the Pacific garbage patch, and from local pollution from shipping and fishing. Thus, sea ice traps large amounts of microplastics and transports them across the Arctic Ocean, but these particles will be released into the global environment when the ice melts, particularly under the influence of a rising mean global temperature. While there is a growing emphasis toward the substitution of petrochemically derived plastics by bioplastics, controversy has arisen in regard to how biodegradable the latter actually are in the open environment, and they presently only account for 0.5% of the total mass of plastics manufactured globally. Since the majority of bioplastics are made from sugar and starch materials, to expand their use significantly raises the prospect of competition between growing crops to supply food or plastics, similarly to the diversion of food crops for the manufacture of primary biofuels. The use of oxo-plastics, which contain additives that assist the material to degrade, is also a matter of concern, since it is claimed that they merely fragment and add to the environmental burden of microplastics; hence, the European Union has moved to restrict their use. Since 6% of the current global oil (including natural gas liquids, NGLs) production is used to manufacture plastic commodities - predicted to rise to 20% by 2050 - the current approaches for the manufacture and use of plastics (including their end-use) demand immediate revision. More extensive collection and recycling of plastic items at the end of their life, for re-use in new production, to offset the use of virgin plastic, is a critical aspect both for reducing the amount of plastic waste entering the environment, and in improving the efficiency of fossil resource use. This is central to the ideology underpinning the circular economy, which has common elements with permaculture, the latter being a regenerative design system based on 'nature as teacher', which could help optimise the use of resources in town and city environments, while minimising and repurposing 'waste'. Thus, food might be produced more on the local than the global scale, with smaller inputs of fuels (including transportation fuels for importing and distributing food), water and fertilisers, and with a marked reduction in the use of plastic packaging. Such an approach, adopted by billions of individuals, could prove of immense significance in ensuring future food security, and in reducing waste and pollution - of all kinds.

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