A sperm whale was found washed ashore dead after swallowing 64 pounds of plastic debris. The male sperm whale was found on the Murcian coast in southern Spain in late February, reminding us how critical plastic waste in the oceans has become.
After investigating, the El Valle Wildlife Rescue Center determined that the sperm whale was killed by gastric shock to its stomach and intestines after ingesting 64 pounds of plastic. The autopsy found plastic bags, nets, ropes, plastic sacks, and even a plastic jerrycan in the whale’s stomach and intestines.
Experts found the inner walls of the whale’s abdomen to be inflamed due to a bacterial or fungal infection. This is likely a result of the whale unable to expel the plastics from its system, resulting in peritonitis.
The male sperm whale, an endangered species protected in the US under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, weighed over 6 tonnes and measured 33 feet long. Sperm whales typically eat squid and live around the same lifespan as humans, averaging 70 years.
As a result of the whale’s death, the Murcia government launched a campaign against dumping plastic waste into the coastal town’s water. The coastal community is working to raise awareness of the ever-growing plastic problem in the oceans and the need for beach cleaning.
With an increasing amount of plastic discarded in oceans, whale deaths due to ingestion of plastics are becoming far too common… To cope with this dilemma, many countries around the world are phasing out single-use plastic bags as typically seen in grocery stores. Below is a map of where countries are in their phasing out of low-density polyethylene plastic bags.
Green indicates plastic bags are banned
Yellow indicates a tax on some plastic bags
Orange indicates a voluntary tax agreement
Purple indicates a partial tax or ban at a regional level
Countries that are phasing out single-use plastic bags (Wikipedia)
The European Union is pushing a transition to have all plastic recyclable or reusable by 2030 with many agencies around the world discussing phasing out non-biodegradable plastics completely.
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Yet Another Dead Whale Is Grave Reminder Of Our Massive Plastic Problem
Most plastic waste has already made its way to landfills and oceans.
Plastic is in almost everything we use. Now researchers have calculated the staggering amount of the synthetic material humans have produced since large-scale production began in the 1950s: 8.3 billion tonnes.
More disturbing, the researchers say, is the amount of plastic waste that humans have produced. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes we’ve made since 1950, 6.3 billion of that has already become waste.
“We expected the numbers to be large, but somehow we were surprised at how large they are,” Roland Geyer, lead author of the study and associate professor in environmental science and management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told CBC News.
“Even for people like me who do these kinds of material flow analyses for a living, these are enormous quantities.”
The number that shocks him the most, however, is the rapid increase in production.
“Of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of virgin plastics ever made, half was made just in the last 13 years,” Geyer said. “Between 2004 and 2015 we made as much plastic as we made between 1950 and 2004.”
Choking our ecosystems
The same team responsible for this study was behind a 2015 study that found somewhere between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic from people living within 50 kilometres of coastlines had made its way into our oceans.
“Our estimate of eight million metric tonnes going into the oceans in 2010 is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” said Jenna Jambeck, co-author of both studies, in a statement at the time. “This annual input increases each year, so our estimate for 2015 is about 9.1 million metric tons,” she said.
“In 2025, the annual input would be about twice the 2010 input, or 10 bags full of plastic per foot of coastline,” she said. “So the cumulative input by 2025 would equal 155 million metric tonnes.”
A recent study found evidence that plastic was making its way into the Arctic Ocean.
“Most humans live in temperate regions and towards equatorial regions, and yet our pollution is not staying in those kind of geographical bounds — they’re moving beyond into these remote regions,” Jennifer Provencher, a post-doctoral researcher at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., told CBC News in May.
There have been several studies on how plastic waste is harming wildlife, with a focus on sea birds.
This albatross’s gut is full of plastic. Photo: Chris Jordan
“I’m very concerned,” Geyer said of plastic in the ocean. “But in a way I’m equally concerned with plastics in terrestrial ecosystems. We don’t even really study the effects of plastics in terrestrial ecosystems. I’m worried that there could be all kinds of unintended adverse environmental consequences.”
Plethora of packaging
“We have to be really mindful of plastics,” Geyer said. “I’m having the exact same struggle and challenges everyone else has. You come home from the supermarket and you’re just amazed at how much packaging there is together with the produce and the food.”
Most things we buy at the supermarket come in plastic packaging (CBC)
While we may be more aware of plastic packaging, the use of plastic fibres in clothing like nylons and fleece has also grown. Between 1950 and 2015, it accounted for one billion tonnes of plastic.
The key, Geyer said, is to ask yourself if you need to buy a product with so much plastic. He notes that some companies like clothing company Patagonia and Mountain Equipment Coop are trying to reduce the amount of plastic in their products. Being mindful in your purchasing habits is key.
“It’s something as a society we collectively have to have a good think about,” Geyer said. “There’s a way to reduce and still have the same services and quality of life. And that would definitely be a simple way to address plastic waste generation; if we just make less in the first place.”
Featured image: Humans have created 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic, of which 6.3 billion tonnes has already become waste, a new study says. ( Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Humans have produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic, researchers say
Sea level rise is happening now, and the rate at which it is rising is increasing every year, according to a recently released study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers, led by University of Colorado-Boulder professor of aerospace engineering sciencesSteve Nerem, used satellite data dating to 1993 to observe the levels of the world’s oceans. Using satellite data rather than tide-gauge data that is normally used to measure sea levels allows for more precise estimates of global sea level, since it provides measurements of the open ocean.
The team observed a total rise in the ocean of 7 centimeters (2.8 inches) in 25 years of data, which aligns with the generally accepted current rate of sea level rise of about 3 millimeters (0.1 inches) per year. But that rate is not constant. Continuous emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and melting its ice, causing the rate of sea level rise to increase.
Changes in sea level observed between 1992 and 2014. Orange/red colors represent higher sea levels, while blue colors show where sea levels are lower.
“This acceleration, driven mainly by accelerated melting in Greenland and Antarctica, has the potential to double the total sea level rise by 2100 as compared to projections that assume a constant rate, to more than 60 centimeters instead of about 30,” said Nerem, who is also a fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science.
That projection agrees perfectly with climate models used in the latest International Panel on Climate Change report, which show sea level rise to be between 52 and 98 centimeters by 2100 for a “business as usual” scenario (in which greenhouse emissions continue without reduction).
Therefore, scientists now have observed evidence validating climate model projections, as well as providing policy-makers with a “data-driven assessment of sea level change that does not depend on the climate models,” Nerem said.
Sea level rise of 65 centimeters, or roughly 2 feet, would cause significant problems for coastal cities around the world. Extreme water levels, such as high tides and surges from strong storms, would be made exponentially worse.
Now, researchers say we could add another 2 feet by the end of this century.
Nerem provided this chart showing sea level projections to 2100 using the newly calculated acceleration rate.
Nerem and his team took into account natural changes in sea level thanks to cycles such as El Niño/La Niña and even events such as the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which altered sea levels worldwide for several years. The result is a “climate-change-driven” acceleration: the amount the sea levels are rising because of the warming caused by manmade global warming.
The researchers used data from other scientific missions such as GRACE, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, to determine what was causing the rate to accelerate.
NASA’s GRACE mission used satellites to measure changes in ice mass. This image shows areas of Antarctica that gained or lost ice between 2002 and 2016.
Currently, over half of the observed rise is the result of “thermal expansion”: As ocean water warms, it expands, and sea levels rise. The rest of the rise is the result of melted ice in Greenland and Antarctica and mountain glaciers flowing into the oceans.
Theirs is a troubling finding when considering the recent rapid ice loss in the ice sheets. “Sixty-five centimeters is probably on the low end for 2100,” Nerem said, “since it assumes the rate and acceleration we have seen over the last 25 years continues for the next 82 years.”
We are already seeing signs of ice sheet instability in Greenland and Antarctica, so if they experience rapid changes, then we would likely see more than 65 centimeters of sea level rise by 2100.”
Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann, who was not involved with the study, said “it confirms what we have long feared: that the sooner-than-expected ice loss from the west Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets is leading to acceleration in sea level rise sooner than was projected.”
Featured image: Greenland’s melting glaciers may someday flood your city.
Results show rapid increase in microplastic in the oceans.
Charles Moore, who first sailed the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997, has returned five times over 15 years to document the concentrations of plastic in the ocean. His results show microplastics are accumulating at a rapid rate.
In 1997, sailboat captain Charles Moore sailed from Hawaii across the Pacific Ocean, taking a shortcut to his home port of Los Angeles after a sailing race. As he cut across the then-seldom-sailed stretch of ocean – the swirling North Pacific Gyre – he came upon an enormous accumulation of plastic trash and made it famous. He helped captured the public’s imagination around the problem of marine plastic pollution by writing about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
In February, two decades after his discovery, he reported a seemingly dramatic 60-fold increase in the tiny pieces of microplastic during his 15 years of study of the now-infamous ocean area. From 1999 to 2014, he and a team of researchers regularly returned to 11 sites across this area with Algalita, the nonprofit he founded, scooping up plastic samples using a manta trawl from Moore’s research catamaran in an attempt to quantify change in plastic over time.
His findings, he said in a press conference at the American Geophysical Union’s 2018 Ocean Sciences meeting in Portland, Oregon, show that the tiny pieces of microplastic floating on the surface of the North Pacific Gyre have increased from 331,809 pieces per square kilometer counted in 1999 to 19,912,037 counted in 2014. This estimate is unique as there are no long-term studies documenting microplastic concentration increases in the North Pacific Gyre. That’s because scientists need an enormous number of samples to come to any conclusion about how concentrations change over time.
Moore’s research ship, Alguita, returns with these samples after four months in the North Pacific Ocean. Algalita Marine Research and Education has been studying ocean plastic pollution since 1999. Long Beach, CA, USA. (Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
However, there is also plenty of uncertainty in making these kinds of estimates. The center of the North Pacific’s swirling mass of water, which holds the highest plastic concentration, appears to be shifting over time, making accurate sampling more challenging. At the meeting, Moore clicked through slides of the North Pacific Gyre, modeled by Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at the University of Hawaii. The slides showed that the large gyre has a concentrated center that has shifted over time closer to the California coast.
“The gyre is not a static place and what our hypothesis is … was the amount of plastic sampled depends on how far it is from the moving center of the Garbage Patch,” Moore said. The results of his research will be published later this year.
While the North Pacific Gyre is commonly referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” now Moore and other scientists like to describe the area instead as a soup filled with various-sized pieces of plastic debris. Although the patch is certainly enormous, its exact size is difficult to pinpoint because it is always shifting between the coasts of Hawaii and California, with a highly concentrated center that moves seasonally and over time with changing ocean conditions.
When making their calculations about the amount of plastic in the gyre, Maximenko and Hafner developed models that helped correct variability in ocean conditions due to currents, winds and waves. These factors can push plastic pieces down temporarily beneath the surface where they aren’t scooped up by researchers’ plastic trawling equipment, which only skims the ocean’s surface. Even when using these models, the amount of plastic still increased by a significant amount, Moore said.
Marcus Eriksen, marine plastic researcher and co-founder of ocean conservation organization 5 Gyres, said that while Moore’s study is an interesting analysis, he questions how accurate it could be because of how many plastic samples are needed to draw a conclusion about trends. In 2014, using the same trawl-sampling techniques as Moore, Eriksen co-authored a study estimating that globally at least 5.25 trillion plastic pieces are floating at or near the ocean’s surface – with nearly two trillion in the North Pacific Ocean alone. Moore, citing his data, believes that study’s estimates for the North Pacific numbers may be an underestimate.
“In my experience, if you sample the same spot one hour later, you’ll likely find a significant difference in plastic count and weight,” said Eriksen. “While the authors are probably correct about an increasing trend – and it is also difficult to understand the influence of the 2011 Japan tsunami event – we need more samples over time to really understand what’s going on.”
Moore acknowledges the variability in sampling for plastic in the North Pacific Gyre, and agrees on a need for more samples. But he emphasized that what’s certain is that the amount of plastic in the oceans, particularly microplastic, is increasing as humans increase their production of the material.
“Our plastic production will triple by 2050 and that’s when it’s predicted to be half-plastic, half-fish in the ocean” by weight, said Moore, citing a plastic impact estimate published by the World Economic Forum. “But we’re continuing to extract more and more fish, we’re making more and more fish sick, we’re catching more and more fish in ghost nets … so the estimate of half-plastic, half-fish by 2050 may be optimistic.”
A new study involving scientists from around the world estimates there are more than 79,000 tonnes of ocean plastic in a 1.6 million square kilometre area of the North Pacific Ocean, commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
An enormous area of rubbish floating in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is teeming with far more debris than previously thought, heightening alarm that the world’s oceans are being increasingly choked by trillions of pieces of plastic.
The sprawling patch of detritus – spanning 1.6m sq km, (617,763 sq miles) more than twice the size of France – contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic, new research published in Nature has found. This mass of waste is up to 16 times larger than previous estimates and provides a sobering challenge to a team that will start an ambitious attempt to clean up the vast swath of the Pacific this summer.
79,000 tons is “the equivalent to the mass of more than 6,500 school buses.” Helen Thompson, Science News
The analysis, conducted by boat and air surveys taken over two years, found that pollution in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is almost exclusively plastic and is “increasing exponentially”. Microplastics, measuring less than 0.5cm (0.2in), make up the bulk of the estimated 1.8tn pieces floating in the garbage patch, which is kept in rough formation by a swirling ocean gyre.
While tiny fragments of plastic are the most numerous, nearly half of the weight of rubbish is composed of discarded fishing nets. Other items spotted in the stew of plastic include bottles, plates, buoys, ropes and even a toilet seat.
Fishing nets and ropes make up 47% of the plastic mass in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a new study suggests. Photo: NOAA A sea turtle entangled in a ghost net. Photo by Francis Perez
“I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it was depressing to see,” said Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer and lead author of the study. Lebreton works for the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch-based non-profit that is aiming to tackle the garbage patch. “There were things you just wondered how they made it into the ocean. There’s clearly an increasing influx of plastic into the garbage patch.”
Particles smaller than half a centimeter, called microplastics, account for 94% of the pieces, but only 8% of the overall mass. In contrast, large (5 to 50 centimeters) and extra-large (bigger than 50 centimeters) pieces made up 25% and 53% of the estimated patch mass. Much of the plastic in the patch comes from humans’ ocean activities, such as fishing and shipping, the researchers found. Almost half of the total mass, for example, is from discarded fishing nets. A lot of that litter contains especially durable plastics, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, which are designed to survive in marine environments. Helen Thompson, Science News
“We need a coordinated international effort to rethink and redesign the way we use plastics. The numbers speak for themselves. Things are getting worse and we need to act now.”
Plastic samples collected during The Ocean Cleanup’s Mega Expedition in 2015. (The Ocean Cleanup Foundation)
. . . The problem of plastic pollution is gaining traction in diplomatic circles, with nearly 200 countries signing on to a UN resolution last year that aims to stem the flood of plastic into the oceans. However, the agreement has no timetable and is not legally binding.
Dr Clare Steele, a California-based marine ecologist who was not involved in the research, said the study provided “great progress” in understanding the composition of the Great Pacific garbage patch.
But she regretted that while removing larger items, such as ghost fishing nets, would help wildlife, the clean-up would not deal with the colossal amount of microplastic.
“Those plankton-sized pieces of plastic are pretty difficult to clean up,” she said. “The only way is to address the source and that will require a radical shift on how we use materials, particularly single-use plastic such as cutlery, straws and bottles that are so durable.
“We need to reduce waste and come up with new, biodegradable alternatives to plastic. But one of the easiest steps is changing the way we use and discard the more ephemeral plastic products.”
And while Eriksen supports initiatives like The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which plans to use nets to collect ocean plastic, he says that’s not a solution by itself.
“I applaud them for going after the big stuff in the middle of the ocean. That’s great,” he said. “We need to keep those nets from shredding into microplastics. But it’s disingenuous to say you’re cleaning the oceans when you’re doing nothing to stop the flow of trash at land and sea.”
Eriksen said that what’s needed is a wide-scale effort beginning at the source.
“Policy has to have [manufacturers] clean up their act,” he said. “And make smarter products and think of the full life cycle; stop making something that, when it becomes waste, becomes a nightmare for everyone.”
Both Lebreton and Eriksen would like to see less single-use plastic as well as a focus on cleaning up beaches and shores, before it makes its ways into our oceans.
“We’ve created a monster with plastic,” Lebreton said. “This [study] shows the urgency of the situation and shows that we need to act quickly.”
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Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 16 times bigger than previously estimated, study finds
Sample collected during 2015 expedition was mostly microplastics less than 0.5 cm in diameter
The world’s most comprehensive analysis of shipping data shows industrial fishing is taking place across more than 55 percent of the oceans, with scientists saying the information could help to conserve stocks and assist local fishermen.
By crunching 22 billion messages sent by vessels’ automatic identification systems (AIS) between 2012 and 2016, researchers identified more than 70,000 ships and could pinpoint, among other things, where and for how long they were fishing.
The researchers, who included members from Google and the National Geographic Society, said the study provided “an unprecedented” ability to better manage the oceans’ resources.
“This new real-time data set will be instrumental in designing improved management of the world’s oceans that is good for the fish, ecosystems and fishermen,” said researcher Chris Costello of the University of California Santa Barbara.
Overfishing and illegal fishing by commercial vessels inflict significant damage on fisheries and the environment, and take food and jobs from millions of people in coastal communities who rely on fishing, environmental groups have said.
Global demand for fish is increasing, while nearly 90 percent of world stocks are overfished or fully exploited, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The study was recently published in the journal Science, and showed that ships fished less in places where stocks were better managed. Researchers said that meant well-enforced policies could combat over-exploitation.
And while most countries fish inside their own exclusive economic zones, it found just five countries – China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea – account for 85 percent of fishing on the high seas.
Ships with AIS ping their identity and position every few seconds. But because only large vessels must have AIS, and as parts of the ocean are not covered by satellites, researchers said the true extent was likely higher than 55 percent.
Heavily fished areas include the northeast Atlantic, northwest Pacific and areas off South America and West Africa.
The Southern Ocean, parts of the northeast Pacific and central Atlantic oceans, and the exclusive economic zones of many island states, showed much less activity – which could offer the chance to conserve marine life cheaply.
“The world’s oceans are the ultimate common resource,” David Kroodsma, the study’s lead author and a director at Global Fishing Watch, a project focused on fishing resources, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “They cover 70 percent of the planet, produce half of the oxygen that we breathe and they’re a major protein source for hundreds of millions of people.”
By Thin Lei Win, Editing by Robert Carmichael; Credit: the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, resilliance and climate change.
The bottled water industry is estimated to be worth nearly $200 billion a year, surpassing sugary sodas as the most popular beverage in many countries. But its perceived image of cleanliness and purity is being challenged by a global investigation that found the water tested is often contaminated with microplastics, tiny particles of plastic.
“Our love affair with making single-use disposable plastics out of a material that lasts for literally centuries — that’s a disconnect, and I think we need to rethink our relationship with that,” says Prof. Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher who carried out the laboratory work at the State University of New York (SUNY).
The research was conducted on behalf of Orb Media, a U.S-based non-profit journalism organization with which CBC News has partnered.
… Mason’s team tested 259 bottles of water purchased in nine countries (none were bought in Canada). Though many brands are sold internationally, the water source, manufacturing and bottling process for the same brand can differ by country.The 11 brands tested include the world’s dominant players — Nestle Pure Life, Aquafina, Dasani, Evian, San Pellegrino and Gerolsteiner — as well as major national brands across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
Researchers found 93% of all bottles tested contained some sort of microplastic, including polypropylene, polystyrene, nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
10.4 particles/litre on average
Microplastics (anything smaller than five millimetres in size) are the result of the breakdown of all the plastic waste that makes its way intolandfills and oceans. They are also manufactured intentionally, as microbeads used in skin care products. Microbeads [in cosmetics] are now being phased out in Canada, after significant numbers began to appear in the Great Lakes and the tiny particles were found filling the stomachs of fish.
Scientists used Nile Red fluorescent tagging, an emerging method for the rapid identification of microplastics, as the dye binds to plastic. Scientists put the dyed water through a filter and then viewed samples under a microscope. (Orb Media)
… Orb found on average there were 10.4 particles of plastic per litre that were 100 microns (0.10 mm) or bigger. This is double the level of microplastics in the tap water tested from more than a dozen countries across five continents, examined in a 2017 study by Orb that looked at similar-sized plastics.
Other, smaller particles were also discovered — 314 of them per litre, on average — which some of the experts consulted about the Orb study believe are plastics but cannot definitively identify.
The amount of particles varied from bottle to bottle: while some contained one, others contained thousands.
The purpose of the study was to establish the presence of the plastics in bottled water.
It’s unclear what the effect of microplastics is on human health, and no previous work has established a maximum safe level of consumption. There are no rules or standards for allowable limits of microplastics in bottled water in Canada, the United States and Europe. Rules and standards for other countries from the study are not known.
Two brands — Nestle and Gerolsteiner — confirmed their own testing showed their water contained microplastics, albeit at much lower levels than what Orb Media is reporting.
The water tested was purchased in the U.S., Kenya, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Mexico and Thailand, and represented a range of brands across several continents. It was shipped to the specialized lab at SUNY in Fredonia, N.Y.
Plastics are present nearly everywhere and can take hundreds of years to degrade, if at all. Many types only continue to break down into smaller and smaller particles, until they are not visible to the naked eye.
Plastics have also been known to act like a sponge, and can absorb and release chemicals that could be harmful if consumed by mammals and fish.
“It’s not straightforward,” said Prof. Max Liboiron of Memorial University in St John’s. “If you’ve ever had chili or spaghetti and you put it in Tupperware, and you can’t scrub the orange colour out, that’s a manifestation of how plastics absorb oily chemicals,” says Liboiron, director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), which monitors plastic pollution.
The European Food Safety Authority suggests most microplastics will be excreted by the body. But the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has raised concerns about the possibility some particles could be small enough to pass into the bloodstream and organs.
It’s not clear how the plastic is getting into the bottled water — whether it’s the water source itself or the air or the manufacturing and bottling process. “Even the simple act of opening the cap could cause plastic to be chipping off the cap,” Mason said.
Prof. Sherri Mason carried out the laboratory work at the State University of New York (SUNY), on behalf of Orb Media. (Dave MacIntosh/CBC)
… There are no rules or standards for allowable limits of microplastics in bottled water in Canada, the United States and Europe. Rules and standards for other countries from the study are not known.
Microplastics are the result of the breakdown of all the plastic waste that makes its way into landfills and oceans. The purpose of the study was to establish the presence of the plastics in bottled water. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)
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Microplastics found in supermarket fish, shellfish
Plastics and plastic packaging are an integral and important part of the global economy. Plastics production has surged over the past 50 years, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and is expected to double again over the next 20 years, as plastics come to serve increasingly many applications. Plastic packaging, the focus of this report, is and will remain the largest application; currently, packaging represents 26% of the total volume of plastics used. Plastic packaging not only delivers direct economic benefits, but can also contribute to increased levels of resource productivity – for instance, plastic packaging can reduce food waste by extending shelf life and can reduce fuel consumption for transportation by bringing packaging weight down.
While delivering many benefits, the current plastics economy also has important drawbacks that are becoming more apparent by the day. Today, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use. More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Plastics that do get recycled are mostly recycled into lower-value applications that are not again recyclable after use. The recycling rate for plastics in general is even lower than for plastic packaging, and both are far below the global recycling rates for paper (58%) and iron and steel (70–90%). In addition, plastic packaging is almost exclusively single-use, especially in business-to-consumer applications.
Plastic packaging generates significant negative externalities, conservatively valued by UNEP at $40 billion and expected to increase with strong volume growth in a business-as-usual scenario. Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. Estimates suggest that plastic packaging represents the major share of this leakage. The best research currently available estimates that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).
The production of plastics draws on fossil feedstocks, with a significant carbon impact that will become even more significant with the projected surge in consumption. Over 90% of plastics produced are derived from virgin fossil feedstocks. This represents, for all plastics (not just plastic packaging), about 6% of global oil consumption, which is equivalent to the oil consumption of the global aviation sector. If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the plastics sector will account for 20% of total oil consumption and 15% of the global annual carbon budget by 2050 (this is the budget that must be adhered to in order to achieve the internationally accepted goal to remain below a 2°C increase in global warming). Even though plastics can bring resource efficiency gains during use, these figures show that it is crucial to address the greenhouse gas impact of plastics production and afteruse treatment.
Plastics often contain a complex blend of chemical substances, of which some raise concerns about potential adverse effects on human health and the environment. While scientific evidence on the exact implications is not always conclusive, especially due to the difficulty of assessing complex long-term exposure and compounding effects, there are sufficient indications that warrant further research and accelerated action.
Many innovations and improvement efforts show potential, but to date these have proved to be too fragmented and uncoordinated to have impact at scale. Today’s plastics economy is highly fragmented. The lack of standards and coordination across the value chain has allowed a proliferation of materials, formats, labelling, collection schemes and sorting and reprocessing systems, which collectively hamper the development of effective markets. Innovation is also fragmented. The development and introduction of new packaging materials and formats across global supply and distribution chains is happening far faster than and is largely disconnected from the development and deployment of corresponding after-use systems and infrastructure. At the same time, hundreds, if not thousands, of small-scale local initiatives are launched each year, focused on areas such as improving collection schemes and installing new sorting and reprocessing technologies. Other issues, such as the fragmented development and adoption of labelling standards, hinder public understanding and create confusion.
In overcoming these drawbacks, an opportunity beckons: using the plastics innovation engine to move the industry into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics and better environmental outcomes.