It’s a sobering statistic: According to a report recently published by the World Economic Forum, ocean plastic trash contaminating our seas may outweigh the fish remaining there by 2050. The report, which was based on the opinions of 180 environmental experts and produced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, serves as a horrifying wake-up call to the reality of plastic pollution.
Ocean Plastic Trash
The report estimates that the ocean is already choked with more than 165 tons (150 million metric tonnes) of plastic. If humanity continues to produce and discard plastic at the current rate, it predicts that the ocean “will contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish.” To put that into context, the equivalent of one garbage truck of trash is currently released into the ocean every minute, totaling almost 10 million tons of plastic every year.
In 2014, global plastic production reached 343 million tons, marking a twentyfold increase in the last five decades. According to the recent report, production is expected to double again in the next 20 years, and will have almost quadrupled by 2050. Escalating production is compounded by the inefficiency with which we dispose of our plastics. The report estimates that 32 percent of all plastic packaging escapes collection systems, ultimately finding its way into the ocean and other natural ecosystems.
Unlike other materials, including iron, paper and steel (all of which are recycled at a rate of more than 50 percent), our recycling record for plastics is notoriously poor. The report found that 95 percent of plastic packaging is used just once before being discarded, a statistic that translates to an economic loss of up to $120 billion. For the ocean, the cost is far more severe. Ocean plastic trash takes hundreds of years to degrade, if it ever does, during which time marine animals may ingest them, or become fatally entangled. When plastics do eventually deteriorate, they release toxic chemicals into the water.
Of course, a future in which ocean plastic outweighs fish cannot be blamed entirely on increasing quantities of rubbish; the statistic is also a direct result of decreasing fish stocks as a result of chronic overfishing. According to an article published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 53 percent of the world’s fisheries are already fully exploited. Ninety percent of large wild fish species have disappeared from our oceans entirely as a result of overfishing, and if things do not improve, scientists have predicted a collapse of all species currently fished for food by 2048.
Both plastic pollution and overfishing are such large-scale problems that they can often seem insurmountable. However, there are solutions, and ways that each of us can help on an individual level. Currently, just 4 percent of the world’s oceans enjoy any form of environmental protection. It is clear that this percentage needs to increase — and soon —if dwindling fish stocks are to be given any relief. Better fisheries management, more sustainable fishing methods and more effective enforcement of existing laws are also critical.
On a personal level, the decision to cut seafood from one’s diet completely is the obvious solution to the unavoidable problem of supply and demand. However, for those that are reluctant to make such a commitment, restricting seafood choices to those species currently considered sustainable is a good compromise. When it comes to plastic pollution, personal lifestyle changes are also important, from diligent recycling, to limiting one’s use of plastic products wherever possible.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, however, changes need to be made on a global scale if the problem of plastic pollution is to be overcome. The foundation is calling for a “major collaboration” between consumer goods companies, plastics manufacturers and international policymakers. Potential solutions include changing the way that goods are packaged to reduce the demand for plastic; the development of bio-benign plastics; and the redesign of plastic goods to make them more easily recyclable.
By highlighting the severity of the plastic pollution problem, Dominic Waughray of the World Economic Forum believes that the recent report will constitute “a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy.” Let’s hope that he’s right; and that there is still a possibility of a healthy future for our oceans.