The amount of plastic ending up in the world’s oceans could nearly triple by 2040 without major action to curb the problem, researchers have warned.
A global team of experts have developed a model to track the flows of plastic around the world and predict what will happen in the coming decades.
The research suggests the amount of plastic that ends up polluting the seas will rise from 11 million tonnes a year in 2016 to 29 million tonnes in 2040 if no action is taken.
That is the equivalent of 110lb (50kg) of plastic washing into the seas for every metre of shoreline, the team’s Breaking The Wave report said.
Because plastic can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years or longer, that means a huge build-up of pollution harming wildlife, contaminating food chains, and affecting the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture.
The cumulative amount of plastic in the world’s oceans could reach 600 million tonnes, the study said.
Even if governments and companies enact current commitments to curb the problem, from introducing bans and product standards to investing in recycling and restricting trade in plastic waste, it would only reduce the amount going into the oceans by 7%.
But a system-wide change to the way that plastic is handled, using existing interventions, could reduce the amount ending up in the seas by 80% compared with doing nothing, the report said.
That involves a significant reduction in plastic production, substituting some plastic with other materials, making more packaging reusable or recyclable, and improving waste collection in middle and low-income countries.
Doing so could also cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce costs for businesses and governments, and create more jobs in the sector, the study argued.
The plastics problem is down to a growing population using more plastic per person, a shift to low-value and non-recyclable materials, and increased consumption of plastic in countries with low rubbish collection rates, it said.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funded the research, and SYSTEMIQ collaborated with the University of Oxford, University of Leeds, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Common Seas to produce the report.
A separate scientific paper on the computer model underpinning the findings has been published in the journal Science.
Tom Dillon, Pew’s vice president for environment, said: “There’s no single solution to ocean plastic pollution, but through rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave.
“As this report shows, we can invest in a future of reduced waste, better health outcomes, greater job creation, and a cleaner and more resilient environment for both people and nature.”
On top of the 11 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the seas, nearly 30 million tonnes are dumped on land, and almost 50 million tonnes are burned in the open, causing greenhouse gas emissions and harming health, the researchers said.
That could rise to 133 million tonnes being burnt and 77 million tonnes dumped on land without significant action.
Dr Costas Velis, from the University of Leeds, said: “Unless the world acts, we estimate more than 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic pollution will end up on land or in water bodies by 2040.
“Enormous as that figure is, it could be even bigger if it were not for the fact that a vast quantity of waste is openly burned – but that burning also carries a major environmental cost.”