Plastic: Pollution to reach 1.3 billion tonnes by 2040

Last updated at 06:48
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The amount of plastic pollution on Earth could reach 1.3 billion tonnes by 2040.

"It's difficult to picture an amount that large, but if you could imagine laying out all that plastic across a flat surface, it would cover the area of the UK 1.5 times," explained Dr Costas Velis, from the University of Leeds.

He said the amount was "staggering" but that we have "the technology and the opportunity to stem the tide".

Around 11 million tonnes of plastic waste enters our oceans each year. Without immediate and continued action, that number could triple to 29 million tonnes by 2040.

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This picture shows a recycling plant in Santiago
Where do the numbers come from?

To figure out how to predict what might happen, the researchers tracked the way plastic is made, used and disposed of around the world.

They then used this information to predict five possible future outcomes based on the amount of action taken to reduce plastic waste.

The outcome with the highest level of plastic waste was called 'Business as Usual'. In this potential outcome, the scientists forecast the figure as if there where no changes to the amount of plastic we reuse and recycle were made.

This outcome showed that the amount of plastic waste produced would increase from 49 million tonnes in 2016 (when the study was started) to around 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste in 2040.

The scenario with the lowest level of plastic waste was called 'System Change'. In this calculation, researchers simulated a variety of different actions being taken to reduce the amount of plastic made, and increase the amount recycled.

The amount of plastic made as a result of these actions, would be 55% less in 2040 than the 'Business as Usual' scenario.

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Winnie Lau, one of the authors of the report, said that it was very important to put in place every possible solution: "If we do that," she said, "we can reduce the amount of plastic that goes into the ocean - by 2040 - by 80%."

However, even if: "all feasible action" was taken, Dr Velis explained, the research in the report showed there would still be 710 million extra tonnes of plastic waste in the environment in the next two decades.

The study says that, even though no instant fix-all solution exists: "78% of the plastic pollution problem can be solved by 2040 using current knowledge and technologies ".

The study, published in the Science journal and funded by US charity Pew, suggests one of the biggest ways to make change happen would be to stop using plastic, and swap it for something else, as well as recycling.

What do you think of these findings? Do you think people need to do more to stop plastic pollution? Let us know in the comments?

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