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Plastic pollution is outpacing ways to manage it

Researchers who have been studying the prevalence of plastic pollution in marine ecosystems are shocked and concerned. The experts measured the extent of plastic pollution washed up on coastlines around the world, and found that the amount of manpower and resources needed to manage this amount of waste is barely even feasible.

The research highlights the accelerating pace with which plastic litter is entering Earth’s waterways annually, and the experts acknowledge that it will be very difficult to keep up with this pace.

Study senior author Chelsea Rochman is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto

“Unless growth in plastic production and use is halted, a fundamental transformation of the plastic economy to a framework based on recycling is essential, where end-of-life plastic products are valued rather than becoming waste,” said Professor Rochman.

According to study lead author Stephanie Borrelle, even if governments around the world meet their ambitious global commitments, and other countries join those efforts to curb plastic pollution, worldwide annual emissions to rivers, lakes and oceans could be as much as 53 million metric tons by the year 2030.

“That’s far beyond the 8 million metric tons amount that was declared unacceptable in 2015,” said Borrelle. The team analyzed the level of effort needed to achieve a global reduction target for plastic pollution of less than 8 million metric tons (MT).

The experts initially determined that 24 to 34 million MT of plastic currently enters aquatic ecosystems every year. Next, they modeled future scenarios based on existing mitigation strategies: reducing production of plastic waste, improving management of plastic waste, and continuous recovery from the environment.

The study revealed that even with parallel efforts in all three of these areas, the level of effort required for each is enormous, including a 25 to 40 percent reduction in the overall production of plastic. Waste collection and management would have to be stepped up by at least 60 percent of all economies, while 40 percent of annual plastic emissions would need to be recovered through cleanup efforts.

“To put that last number into people power, the cleanup alone would require at least 1 billion people participating in Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup,” said Borrelle. “This would be a Herculean task given this is 660 times the effort of the 2019 cleanup.”

The researchers emphasized that even if the prescribed effort is realized, the world remains locked in an unacceptable plastic future.

“The global community must coordinate a fundamental transformation of the plastics economy, one that reduces the amount of virgin plastic production, and reimagines how we make use and dispose of plastic materials,” said Professor Rochman.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation through the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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