If you thought the world already had a plastic pollution problem, the depressing thing is that it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. History shows that as countries get richer they use and throw away ever greater volumes of the stuff. Economic growth tends to outrun investment in waste management.
That’s why many of the countries in a new list of the worst marine plastic polluters are middle-income nations. They’ve experienced recent economic growth and haven’t put in infrastructure to deal with the fallout. Many are likely to keep growing before they get a good handle on their plastic waste issues.
As we’ve seen with previous studies (here and here), there are now trillions of pieces of plastic in the oceans, much of it ground down and invisible to the naked eye. One recent paper put the total at 268,940 metric tons in all.
The new research looks at the other side of the equation–how countries contribute to marine plastic waste. Researchers looked at the mass of waste generated per person in a country, the percentage of waste that’s plastic, and then the percentage of plastic waste that’s mismanaged. The result is the first rigorous estimates of how much plastic is entering the oceans each year and who is responsible.
“We’re counting the carrots that you put in your stew before you put them in, instead of counting the small pieces in your stew after it is cooked,” says lead author Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia.
Jambeck’s team found that 192 coastal countries generated a total of 275 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2010 and that between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons entered the oceans. That’s a very large number. Estimates of actual marine pollution have been about a third of that. “It begs the question where is the plastic going?” she says. “[The answer is] some is on the sea floor, some is in sea ice, some is in sediment, some is depositing on beaches, and some is in animals.”
If nothing is done, we won’t hit “peak waste” until the end of the century. Even as we improve controls in the developed world, population trends and economic growth in Africa and other places will see plastic pollution increase. We badly need to export know-how to less industrialized countries and help introduce “downstream” initiatives–say where companies take post-use responsibility for plastic.
“We can help waste management infrastructure follow economic development more closely. That will help,” says Jambeck. “Now that we know that plastic is such a large part of our waste stream, we can be better prepared to deal with it.”