Our Ocean is Choking on Plastic-But It’s a Problem We Can Solve
Some 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic every minute. A 2020 Pew-authored report, “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” projected that the inflow will increase to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040 without ambitious action. Unfortunately, the report showed that commitments made to date by governments and industry, such as bans on plastic bags and straws, will have only an incremental impact on those numbers. If humanity is serious about tackling this problem, we need large-scale, systemic change, with governments and businesses of all sizes doing their parts.
Plastic is also now in our bodies, at least temporarily. It’s in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe. In a potentially ominous sign, a study published last year found traces of plastic in a human placenta, meaning that we are not only ingesting particles but potentially passing them on to the next generation. The human health implications of all of this are just beginning to be understood.
Worldwide, only 9% of plastic makes it to a recycling plant. And for much plastic pollution—on land and in the sea—recycling was never an economically viable option to begin with. This includes microplastics, particles 5 millimeters or less in width, such as those generated from vehicle tires and some textiles or added to liquid soaps and shampoos. In fact, microplastics are a huge part of the marine plastic pollution problem because they can mimic fish eggs and other tiny organisms and are thus consumed by sea life. Once microplastics reach the ocean, they’re nearly impossible to filter out without great cost or damage to marine life, so they become a near-permanent feature of the ecosystem.
But as noted in “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” humanity can reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean by up to 80% by 2040 through a set of actions led by governments and industry—the two entities with the most power to effect large-scale change. And, to reiterate an overarching finding of the report, there are no quick or simple fixes to this mass problem—but humanity can solve the ocean plastic puzzle in one generation with a concerted, broad-based, and long-term effort.
For governments, the first step is grasping where the plastic is coming from and how it is moving from production to, eventually, the ocean. And this is one of the ways that Pew can help. In the coming months, we will launch the second generation of a tool that governments can use to determine the extent of their country’s plastic pollution problem and use that information to guide action.