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Ocean plastic waste to triple by 2040

Plastic currently accounts for 85 percent of all marine litter. By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million tonnes of waste into the ocean per year. This translates into about 50 kgs of plastic per meter of coastline. In addition to intoxication to marine life, the human body is similarly vulnerable to this plastic pollution.

A United Nations report charts the significant consequences of plastic littering for the global economy. While accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be US$ 6-19 billion per year.

By 2040, however, there could be a US$100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs.

Once considered a wonder material of the 21st century, plastic has now become a major debatable issue today. Its production or consumption as such is not a problem, but irresponsible littering continues to create a menace and threatens life on the earth. Owing to its long shelf life of around 450 years, plastic littering creates environmental hazards and adds to the existing water, soil, and air pollution. Therefore, the United Nations warns of dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity, and the climate over its uses and emphasizes the need to produce alternatives like biodegradable and compostable materials that are environment-friendly and easy to use.

Unfortunately, a recent Paris-based OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report finds only about 9 percent of the volume of global plastic was recycled in 2019, but 22 percent of the output was mismanaged. Mostly these mismanaged plastics are treated in three different ways: burnt which creates air pollution, use in landfills which generates soil pollution, and heads into the sea through nearby waterbodies that support water pollution.

Plastics account for an estimated 3.4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions during their lifecycle, 90 percent of which are produced during manufacturing. Finding ways to decarbonize plastics production could significantly reduce their environmental impact. As a consequence, a large volume of mismanaged plastic waste ends up in emerging markets due to both inadequate waste-management infrastructure and an influx of waste imports from developed economies.

A United Nations report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that plastic pollution in oceans and other water bodies continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030. Most of the plastic in oceans comes from land-based sources i.e. 70-80 percent volume is transported from land to the sea via rivers or coastlines. The other 20-30 percent comes from marine sources such as fishing nets, lines, ropes, and abandoned vessels.

Huge investment – the need of the hour

According to Oxford Business Group, waste remains a significant environmental issue – although a variety of initiatives promise to make emerging markets the focus of the global struggle against plastic waste. The Covid-19 pandemic saw a decline in plastic usage and led to an increase in littering from personal protective equipment (PPE) and single-use plastics. Incidentally, much of this waste is disposed of unsustainably, ending up either incinerated or stored in a landfill.

A report further assessed that an additional US$759 billion investment was needed to make petrochemical production net zero by 2050 which, in turn, would reduce the 2 percent of global emissions that come from the production of high-value chemicals, a key component in the manufacturing of plastics and other goods. Apart from increasing production and demand for recycled materials, the production of biodegradable and compostable materials.

A study predicts the automotive and construction equipment markets to account for a majority of plastic manufacturing sales over the next decade. These two markets are expected to experience significant growth owing to their need for a variety of plastic products, such as car parts, construction materials, and window frames. Other dominant sectors are packaging (especially food and beverage), electronics, and building products.

But, the growth will come in the plastic industry along with several headwinds. Addressing these challenges will translate into an acceleration in the plastic market size. The biggest of these challenges is the environmental impact as plastics production currently generates more than 17 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually, which is equivalent to the emission from 3.5 million cars. Another challenge is the availability of some raw materials such as polypropylene as these inputs are becoming increasingly scarce because of their rising demand.

To address these challenges, however, continued innovation in technology and processes, as well as research into new applications for plastics can help reduce environmental impact and preserve natural resources. The study lays emphasis on the need for massive investment in research and development (R&D) globally to produce high-quality materials.