Reports & Studies

Zero Plastic Pollution Scenarios

Plastic pollution is a pervasive and growing problem. To estimate the effectiveness of interventions to reduce plastic pollution, we modeled stocks and flows of municipal solid waste and four sources of microplastics through the global plastic system for five scenarios between 2016 and 2040.

Implementing all feasible interventions reduced plastic pollution by 40% from 2016 rates and 78% relative to ‘business as usual’ in 2040. Even with immediate and concerted action, 710 million metric tons of plastic waste cumulatively entered aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

To avoid a massive build-up of plastic in the environment, coordinated global action is urgently needed to reduce plastic consumption, increase rates of reuse, waste collection and recycling, expand safe disposal systems and accelerate innovation in the plastic value chain.

Addressing the plastic pollution problem

Our analysis indicates that urgent and coordinated action combining pre- and post-consumption solutions could reverse the increasing trend of environmental plastic pollution.

While no silver bullet exists, 78% of the plastic pollution problem can be solved by 2040 using current knowledge and technologies and at a lower net cost for waste management systems compared to BAU.

However, with long degradation times, even a 78% reduction from BAU pollution rates results in a massive accumulation of plastic waste in the environment.

Moreover, even if this system change is achieved, plastic production and unsound waste management activities will continue to emit large quantities of GHGs.

Further innovation in resource-efficient and low-emission business models, reuse and refill systems, sustainable substitute materials, waste management technologies and effective government policies are needed.

Such innovation could be financed by redirecting existing and future investments in virgin plastic infrastructure.

Substantial commitments to improving the global plastic system are required from businesses, governments and the international community to solve the ecological, social and economic problems of plastic pollution and achieve near-zero input of plastics into the environment.

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