If the world embarked on an immediate and globally-coordinated effort to reduce our plastic consumption, there would still be an estimated 710 million metric tons of plastic that will pollute the environment by 2040, new research has found.
The study, from a group of international researchers and published in the journal Science on Thursday, found that even in a "best-case scenario" where the amount of plastic pollution was reduced by 80% by 2040, there would still be a massive build-up of accumulated plastic.
Millions of tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, polluting the seas, littering beaches and endangering wildlife. Plastic particles have been found in soils, in the atmosphere and even in the most remote regions of Earth, such as Antarctica. Microplastics are also eaten by fish and other sea creatures, where they enter the food chain.
A rapid growth in plastic production, spurred by a rise in single-use plastics and a "throw-away" culture has exacerbated the problem, the report said. Meanwhile, waste management systems in countries around the world don't have the capacity to safely dispose of or recycle plastic waste.
The team found that there is no silver bullet solution to reducing global plastic pollution.
Instead, change is needed across the whole supply chain, they said, from the manufacturing of plastics, to pre-consumption (known as upstream) and after use (recycling and reusing) to stop the spread of plastic pollution into the environment.
One key finding the study identified is that waste mismanagement wasn't necessarily a problem of having the recycling capacity, landfill space or incinerators, but the bottle neck came from the collection gap.
"There are billions of people without collection services right now. When certain groups say we can recycle our way out of it, you can't recycle something you haven't collected. You can't dispose of something you haven't collected," said Dr. Winnie Lau, co-author of the study.
The team noted that in many middle-income countries, such as India, informal workers and waste pickers made a living from collecting plastics and that their work was a key component of being able to solve this collection gap. Often these workers have no legal or formal recognition and no protection.
By highlighting how vital they are to this sector, the authors said it will hopefully bring them into the part of the economy where their contribution is recognized.