Experts use model to offer radical solution to plastic waste: don’t reduce – just stop

Back in the dim dark distant days of 2017, about 4.9 billion tonnes of plastic existed on the planet. Now, the planet has about 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste, with approximately 11 million tonnes of it running into ocean each year. By 2040, this number is estimated to almost double.

While many different solutions have been developed to help reduce or process our plastic waste (including bioplastics, plastic-eating caterpillars, and robot arms to do the soft-plastic recycling) an international group of scientists say this is no longer enough. In a letter to Science, they argue that the best way to tackle this issue is to phase out production of new plastics completely.

Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute (Germany), was the initiator of the letter. “Even if we recycled better and tried to manage the waste as much as we can, we would still release more than 17 million tonnes of plastic per year into nature,” says Bergmann. “If production just keeps growing and growing, we will be faced with a truly Sisyphean task.”

Mathematical modelling has calculated that even if we immediately implement all feasible interventions – such as reducing, substituting or recycling plastic waste – 6.5 billion tonnes of plastic waste will still be produced by 2040, with over 700 million tonnes (Mt) of plastic waste ending up in the environment (275 Mt aquatic/425 Mt terrestrial). If we continue to produce waste at our current rate, we will make 8.4 billion tonnes of plastic waste with 1.3 billion tonnes polluting the terrestrial and aquatic environments.

Even implementing multiple solutions, with population growth our net plastic waste production is still set to grow. Unless we stop making plastic. Credit: Modified from Lau et al. 2020/Science.

Australia’s own national targets by 2025 are for:

  • 100% of packaging be reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted
  • 50% average recycled content included in packaging

However, in last year’s Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) report, of the 1.1 million tonnes of plastic packaging consumed last year, only 179,000 tonnes were recovered (16%). Only 3% of the plastic packaging on the market contains recycled material, showing we have a long way to go. According to the UN Environment Program report, by reducing our waste, and shifting to a circular economy, governments could save $98 billion in waste management services – the silver lining to our plastic predicament.

“We gain a lot of benefits from plastics,” says Martin Wagner, ecotoxicologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “But reducing production will increase the value of plastics, boost other measures to curb plastic pollution, help tackle climate change and promote our transition to a circular and sustainable economy.”

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