ISLAMABAD: In the first study of the mass of plastic waste polluting world oceans, a report published on Tuesday expresses apprehensions that at the current rate of the waste flowing into the oceans it will outweigh fish and other maritime creatures by 2050. The report says that 95pc of the value of packaging material, worth $80 billion to $120bn, is being lost to the oceans after a short first use.
By 2025, the ratio of plastic to fish in the ocean may rise to one to three, with the waste growing to 250 million tons.
The report, ‘New Plastics Economy’ by World Economic Forum, says that at least 8 million tons of plastics leak into the ocean each year. This is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute. If no action is taken, this will rise to two per minute by 2030 and four by 2050, the report warns.
Plastics, the report says, cause an annual estimated damage of $13bn to marine ecosystems. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation estimates that the damage caused by ocean plastics to tourism, fishing and shipping industries is $1.3bn in that region alone.
Even in Europe, where leakage is relatively limited, the potential cost of coastal and beach cleaning could rise to $695mn per year. In addition to the direct economic costs, there are potential adverse impacts on human livelihood and health, food chains and other essential economic and societal systems.
Study envisages vision for global economy where plastics never become waste
The plastics industry is highly reliant on finite stocks of oil and gas, which make up more than 90pc of its feedstock. For plastic packaging, the figure is even higher, as recycling of plastics into packaging applications is limited. If the use of plastics continues to grow at the same rate, oil consumption by the sector will account for 20pc of total consumption by 2050.
More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling system, only 14pc of plastic packaging is collected for the purpose. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5pc of material value is retained for subsequent use.
The report cautions that if the use of plastics continues to grow at the current rate, the sector will account for 15pc 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.
The new plastic economy outlined in the report envisages a fundamental rethink for plastic packaging and plastics in general – a new model based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics; drastically reducing leakage of plastics into natural systems, particularly in oceans and finding alternatives to crude oil and natural gas as raw materials for plastic production.
The report provides a vision for the global economy in which plastics never become waste, outlining steps to achieve the required systemic shift.
Today’s plastics economy is highly fragmented and 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.
Current plastic packaging offers great functional benefits but it has an inherent design flaw: its intended useful life is typically less than one year.
The material, however, persists for centuries, which is particularly damaging if it leaks outside collection systems, as happens today with 32pc of plastic packaging.
Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2016