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Ocean Pollution On The Rise, More Plastic Than Fish In The Sea By 2050

The oceans of the world could contain more plastic than fish by 2050, with both plastic production and pollution on the rise, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The report also suggests that 20 percent of all oil production in the next few decades could go to the production of plastic, and plastic production is 20 times greater today than it was 50 years ago.

Plastic is recyclable, but very little of it is actually recycled. According to numbers from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 78 million metric tons of plastic was used in packaging materials in 2013. Of that 78 million metric tons of plastic, 14 percent was collected for recycling, and just 2 percent actually made it back into the production line. The rest can be accounted for as process losses, at 4 percent, and cascaded recycling, where the plastic is recycled for use in lower-value applications, at 8 percent.

There are two main points to take away from that information. The first is that 98 percent of the plastic produced in 2013 used virgin feedstock, or petroleum products, rather than recycled plastic. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, continuing at this pace could mean that 20 percent of all oil production in the next few decades could flow straight into the plastic production line.

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About 14 percent of the 78 million metric tons of plastic produced in 2013 ended up in the oceans. [Infographic courtesy Ellen MacArthur Foundation]
The other issue is the other 76 percent of that 78 million metric tons of plastic that wasn’t collected for recycling. Some were incinerated, and the plurality of the discarded plastic ended up in landfills, but some 32 percent leaked out into the environment. That’s nearly 25 million tons of plastic dumped into the environment, much of which eventually ends up in the oceans, in just one year.

The disturbing conclusion drawn by the new report is that, eventually, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.

Right now, the best estimates put the amount of plastic in the oceans at about 150 million metric tons. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, that amount is being added to at a rate of one garbage truck dumping its entire load straight into the ocean each minute, which adds up to about eight million metric tons of plastic each year. At that rate, and assuming that industry and consumer practices remain unchanged, there could be one metric ton of plastic for every three metric tons of fish in the oceans of the world by 2025.

By 2050, there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish, measuring by weight.

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By 2050, the oceans could contain more plastic than fish. [Infographic courtesy Ellen MacArthur Foundation]
The subject of ocean pollution has gained a lot of traction recently, with more public awareness of the Pacific Ocean garbage patch and efforts to outlaw plastic microbeads. However, the numbers from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation only address plastics used in packaging that could otherwise be recycled. Plastic microbeads, which are typically invisible to the naked eye, represent an entirely new problem in terms of ocean pollution and plastic. In fact, most of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch consists of very small pieces that are invisible to the naked eye.

The solution suggested by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a three-pronged approach that includes improving global plastic recycling efforts, reducing the amount of plastic that is leaked into the environment each year, and eventually decoupling the production of plastic from the fossil fuels that currently make up 98 percent of the feedstock in plastic production.

According to Fortune, attempts to increase global recycling efforts could face a major hurdle in the form of low oil prices. With the collapse of global oil prices, plastic recycling becomes less profitable, and Fortune reports that large recycling firms in the United States, like Waste Management, have reported steep declines in revenue from their recycling operations.

Do you think that we’ll ever see more plastic in the ocean than fish, or will plastic pollution change in the coming decades?

[Photo by AP Photo/Julio Cortez]