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Modeling analysis to prevent, stop plastic pollution from entering the ocean

Excerpts from the report “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution”, published by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, presenting an evidence-based road map that describes how to radically reduce ocean plastic pollution by 2040:
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The flow of plastic into the ocean is projected to nearly triple by 2040. Without considerable action to address plastic pollution, 50 kg of plastic will enter the ocean for every metre of shoreline. Plastic pollution in the ocean is a major environmental challenge, yet a coherent global strategy to solve this growing crisis remains elusive. It is a by-product of fundamental flaws in an essentially linear plastic system in which 95 per cent of aggregate plastic packaging value -- US$80 billion-US$120 billion a year-- is lost to the economy following a short first-use cycle.
Very different responses to the crisis have been proposed, from eliminating plastic entirely to turning it into fuels, and from developing biodegradable substitutes to recycling plastic back into usable products. Each solution comes with advantages and drawbacks. Understanding the effectiveness of different solutions, and the related economic, environmental, and social implications, is crucial to making progress towards stopping ocean plastic pollution.
Without action, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean will nearly triple by 2040, to 29 million metric tons per year (range: 23 million-37 million metric tons per year), equivalent to 50 kg of plastic per metre of coastline worldwide. Owing to four compounding trends -- continued population growth; increases in plastic use per capita driven in part by increasing production of cheap virgin plastic; shifts to lowvalue/nonrecyclable materials; and the growing share of plastic consumption occurring in countries with low rates of collection—annual plastic flows to the ocean are expected to grow from 11 million metric tons in 2016 to 29 million metric tons in 2040, with consequences for communities, businesses, and ecosystems.
Under our Business-as-Usual (BAU) Scenario, about 4 billion people are likely to be without organized waste collection services by 2040, contributing significantly to the expected mass of plastic leakage to the ocean. The cost of inaction is high to businesses, communities, and ecosystems; particularly stark is the US$100 billion annual financial risk that businesses face if governments require them to cover waste management costs at expected volumes and recyclability.
Governments and industry leaders are stepping up with new policies and voluntary initiatives, but these are often narrow in focus or concentrated in low-leakage countries. By 2040, current government and industry commitments are likely to reduce annual plastic leakage to the ocean by only 7 per cent relative to the Business-as Usual Scenario.
A review of the key government initiatives worldwide -- such as the European Union’s single-use plastics directive and the growing number of national plastic policies -- often reveals a narrow focus on select items (e.g., straws, bags, cups, stirrers, cotton swabs, and bottles), which severely limits the reduction in total leaked plastic mass. Industry has also made high-profile commitments, but these are primarily focused on post-consumer downstream solutions and often in lowleakage countries.
Government policies and leadership by consumer goods companies will be critical in driving upstream action on reduction, reuse, and redesign as well as downstream action to improve collection and recycling. Governments and investors also need to curtail the planned expansion in plastic production capacity to prevent locking us deeper into the status quo.
There is no single solution to end ocean plastic pollution. Upstream and downstream solutions should be deployed together. To date, much of the debate has focused on either “upstream” (pre-consumer, such as material redesign, plastic reduction, and substitution) or “downstream” solutions (postconsumer, such as recycling and disposal). Our analysis shows that this is a false dichotomy. Upstream solutions that aim to reduce or substitute plastic use are critical and should be prioritized but will need to be scaled carefully to limit adverse social or environmental effects.
Downstream solutions are also essential but limited by economic viability and the realistic speed of infrastructure development in the face of growing plastic waste production. Moreover, given the potential negative impacts on human health and the environment of some downstream disposal technologies, their use should be weighed against different trade-offs and carefully controlled. Modelled on their own, no “singlesolution” strategies reduce annual leakage of plastic to the ocean even below 2016 levels by 2040.
An ambitious recycling strategy, for example, with ambitious scale-up of collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure coupled with design for recycling, reduces 2040 leakage by 38 per cent relative to BAU, which is 65 per cent above 2016 levels. Similarly, an ambitious reduction and substitution strategy, without massive expansion of downstream infrastructure, reduces 2040 leakage by 52 per cent (±9 per cent) relative to BAU, 28 per cent (±5 per cent) above 2016 levels. An integrated approach with new ways to deliver the benefits of today’s plastic is needed to significantly reduce ocean plastic pollution.
Industry and governments have the solutions today to reduce rates of annual land-based plastic leakage into the ocean by about 80 per cent below projected BAU levels by 2040, while delivering on other societal, economic, and environmental objectives. It is not the lack of technical solutions that is preventing us from addressing the ocean plastic crisis, but rather inadequate regulatory frameworks, business models, and funding mechanisms.
Although the technical solutions exist, the incentives are not always in place to scale up these changes fast enough. A reduction of plastic production -- through elimination, the expansion of consumer reuse options, or new delivery models -- is the most attractive solution from environmental, economic, and social perspectives. It offers the biggest reduction in plastic pollution, often represents a net savings, and provides the highest mitigation opportunity in GHG emissions.
Annual land-based plastic leakage into the ocean can be reduced by around 80 per cent by 2040, compared with BAU, through the concurrent, ambitious, and global implementation of multiple synergistic system interventions:
  • Reduce growth in plastic production and consumption to avoid nearly one-third of projected plastic waste generation through elimination, reuse, and new delivery models.
  • Substitute plastic with paper and compostable materials, switching one-sixth of projected plastic waste generation. 
  • Design products and packaging for recycling to expand the share of economically recyclable plastic from an estimated 21 per cent to 54 per cent. 
  • Expand waste collection rates in the middle-/low-income countries to 90 per cent in all urban areas and 50 per cent in rural areas and support the informal collection sector. 
  • Double mechanical recycling capacity globally to 86 million metric tons per year. 
  • Develop plastic-to-plastic conversion, potentially to a global capacity of up to 13 million metric tons per year. 
  • Build facilities to dispose of the 23 per cent of plastic that cannot be recycled economically, as a transitional measure. 
  • Reduce plastic waste exports by 90 per cent to countries with low collection and high leakage rates. 
  • Roll out known solutions for four microplastic sources -- tyres, textiles, personal care products and production pellets -- to reduce annual microplastic leakage to the ocean by 1.8 million metric tons per year (from 3 million metric tons to 1.2 million metric tons) by 2040. 
Taken together, these system interventions describe a credible scenario for dealing with ocean plastic pollution. Under the System Change Scenario, 30 per cent of BAU plastic demand is reduced, 17 per cent (range: 15 per cent-18 per cent) is substituted, 20 per cent is recycled, 23 per cent is disposed of and 10 per cent remains mismanaged.
Going beyond the System Change Scenario to tackle the remaining 5 million metric tons per year  of plastic leakage demands significant innovation across the entire value chain. In 20 years, we can break the seemingly unstoppable wave of plastic pollution, but the System Change Scenario still does not go far enough. It leaves 5 million metric tons of plastic flowing into the ocean in 2040 -- which represents a 52 per cent reduction from 2016 rates.
Achieving the vision of near-zero ocean plastic pollution will require technological advances, new business models, significant spending, and, most crucially, accelerating upstream innovation. This massive innovation scale-up requires a focused and wellfunded R&D agenda exceeding US$100 billion per year by 2040, including moon-shot ambitions, to help middle-/ low-income countries to leapfrog the unsustainable linear economy model of high-income countries.
Most crucial will be solutions that focus upstream and can work in rural/ remote areas (where collection economics are challenging), that replace multilayer and multimaterial plastics (e.g., new delivery models or new materials), and that lead to new tyre designs to reduce abrasion of microplastic particles while maintaining safety standards. Innovation will also be critically needed in financing and policy. The alternative is to greatly increase the ambition levels above the maximum foreseeable levels modelled under the System Change Scenario.
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Download full report here

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