Plastic pollution is accumulating at such a frenetic place that even a coordinated global effort to reduce it would leave us mired under 710 million metric tons more of it by the year 2040, experts say.
We’re in a very leaky boat and no matter how fast we bail, we’re still sinking. We need a bigger bailer and we need to patch the holes.
An international research team modeled various scenarios and even in the “best case” – reducing plastic pollution by 80 percent by 2040 – the cumulative buildup of plastic would be massive. “Doing nothing is not an option, said Dr. Winnie Lau, co-author of the study and senior manager for Pew’s Preventing Ocean Plastics campaign,” in a CNN report profiling the study.
Other new studies are evaluating ways to do at least something. A group of researchers looked at the effectiveness of surface-floating clean-up devices that collect plastic near the top of bodies of water, for example, and found the results to be “modest.” Pairing this technology with river barriers, however, could make “significant” improvements, they said. Both tools address floating plastic, as “as sunk waste is difficult or impossible to remove depending on size and location,” said an article in Forbes describing the technologies.
Lots of passionate people are using science and technology to remove plastics from the oceans. At the micro level, an 18-year-old student from Ireland, for example, won the 2019 Google Science Fair with his method to use a magnetic liquid, or ferrofluid, invented by NASA to remove microplastics from water. Read the World Economic Forum’s description here. At the macro and micro levels, The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit based in the Netherlands, has sent a fleet of floating cleanup systems to the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific and “aims to clean up 50 percent of its plastics every five years.”
Perhaps even more difficult will be stopping plastic pollution at its sources. Drinks and other liquids not distributed in plastic bottles? Food not distributed in plastic packaging? Some experts say the answer lies in a circular economy model based on a mix of “Eliminate, Innovate and Circulate.” In such an approach we would “eliminate plastic we don’t need” (like straws and cutlery, which can be made of other materials); “innovate (so that plastic we do use can be safely reused, recycled or composted)”; and “circulate” (so the “plastic we produce stays in the economy and never becomes waste or pollution).” This approach is central to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment launched in 2018 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with UN Environment.
The stakes are high and the deadline is near. The planet is being polluted with plastic so fast that the earth could reach a point of no return. We at zNano would rather work on solutions than imagine failure.