Urgent action needed over plastic pollution crisis | University of Oxford
Widespread use of PPE has added to the amount of plastic waste
Credit: Shutterstock Widespread use of PPE has added to levels of plastic waste. But existing technologies can cut waste by 80%

Urgent action needed over plastic pollution crisis

Pressure is building on governments, manufacturers and key decision-makers to take action, following the report last month, from a global group including the University of Oxford, which showed 80% of plastic pollution could be cut using existing technology.

Behind-the-scenes consultations, with international politicians and institutions, are understood to be taking place over implementing the report’s recommendations. It found that, if no action is taken to address growing plastic production and consumption, the cumulative amount of plastic in the world’s oceans could increase to 600 million tonnes within 20 years. But the report argued that industry and governments ‘have the solutions today’ to slash plastic leakage and the report warned that any delay would be very costly, ‘The next two years are pivotal if key milestones are to be achieved.’ 

If no action is taken to address growing plastic production and consumption, the cumulative amount of plastic in the world’s oceans could increase to 600 million tonnes within 20 years

Concerns have been mounting that the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate the plastic problem, with discarded PPE already being found on pavements around the UK. But, last month’s report from The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, in collaboration with Oxford, the University of Leeds, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Common Seas, had already revealed that the annual flow of plastic into the ocean could nearly triple by 2040.

Oxford Professor of Environmental Systems, Richard Bailey says, ‘This is a huge and worsening problem, and it’s not going away unless significant multi-sectoral changes are made across the globe. The good news is we can solve around 80% of the problem with existing technologies, and we now understand how these solutions fit together, and how they drive a broad range of associated economic, environmental, and societal benefits. We have a genuine opportunity to turn this in to a success story.’

Professor Bailey adds, ‘I’ve been massively encouraged by the coverage this issue is getting, and how the findings of work are already making their way in to discussions across government, industry and other sectors. A big part of the next phase of work will be getting the models and tools we’ve developed in to the hands of decision-makers.’

The good news is we can solve around 80% of the problem with existing technologies, and we now understand how these solutions fit together, and how they drive a broad range of associated economic, environmental, and societal benefits. We have a genuine opportunity to turn this in to a success story

And he warns, ‘It’s hard to predict the long-term net effect of Coronavirus on plastic pollution, as there are both increases and decreases in potentially polluting activities. Nonetheless, the spike in PPE use is certainly going to be a significant factor, and will no doubt further highlight the kinds of systemic problems we know are already there. We really just need to get on and solve this problem.’

Breaking the Plastic Wave: Top Findings for Preventing Plastic Pollution is available here. Read the academic paper: Lau, W.W.Y., Shiran, Y., Bailey, R.M., et al. (2020) Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution, Science, eaba9475.