Plastic pollution is globally ubiquitous. It is found throughout the oceans, in rivers and lakes, in soils and sediments, in the atmosphere, and in animal biomass. This proliferation has been driven by rapid growth in plastic production and use combined with linear economic models that ignore the externalities of waste.
A sharp rise in single-use plastic consumption and an expanding ‘throw-away’ culture have exacerbated the problem. Waste management systems do not have sufficient capacity at the global level to safely dispose of or recycle waste plastic, resulting in an inevitable increase in plastic pollution into the environment.
Plastic pollution impacts many aspects of human well-being: affecting the aesthetics of beaches, blocking drainage and wastewater engineering systems and providing a breeding ground for disease vectors. Mismanaged plastic waste is associated with a range of risks to human and ecological health. Substantial quantities of such waste are likely to continue to be emitted into the environment or openly burned through time. Many communities in emerging economies with inadequate waste management services and infrastructure burn waste residential or in open dumpsites without emissions controls. Open burning transfers the pollution burden to air, water and land via the generation of GHGs, particulate matter and harmful chemicals such as dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants. It therefore remains a stubborn pollution and social justice problem in need of an effective solution.
The lower-bound estimate of the economic costs of plastic pollution on tourism, fishing, and shipping have been estimated at USD 13 billion annually. Cost-effective solutions to managing plastic waste vary considerably across geographies and social settings, and a variety of solutions to the plastic pollution problem have been proposed at local, national and regional levels.
Individual countries have established bans or levies on select plastic products, with a particular focus on banning single-use carrier bags and microbeads in cosmetic products. Despite these efforts, a global evidence-based strategy that includes practical and measurable interventions aimed at reducing plastic pollution does not yet exist.
Scenarios to Reduce
To parameterize the development of waste management and recycling solutions in the ‘Collect and Dispose’, ‘Recycling’, and ‘System Change’ scenarios, research team estimated maximum foreseen growth and implementation rates based on historical trends and expert panel consensus assessment. Analysis indicates that urgent and coordinated action combining pre- and post-consumption solutions could reverse the increasing trend of environmental plastic pollution.Further innovation in resource-efficient and low-emission business models, reuse and refill systems, sustainable substitute materials, waste management technologies and effective government policies are needed. Such innovation could be financed by redirecting existing and future investments in virgin plastic infrastructure. Substantial commitments to improving the global plastic system are required from businesses, governments and the international community to solve the ecological, social and economic problems of plastic pollution and achieve near-zero input of plastics into the environment.
Approximately 8 million metric tons (Mt) of macroplastic and 1.5 Mt of primary microplastic enter the ocean annually.
If plastic production and waste generation continue to grow at current rates, the annual mass of mismanaged waste has been projected to more than double by 2050.
Plastic production, collection and disposal are also major sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Researchers conducted interviews with industry experts or purchased proprietary data from industry market research databases, because of limited number of cases where data were not available in the published literature.