Unconsidered Connection Between Plastic Production and Pollution Becomes Uncomfortably Evident

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Between 2000 and 2019, global plastic production doubled. By 2040, it could consume up to 20 percent of global oil production and account for 15 percent of annual carbon emissions. With production ramping up, more plastic will end up in landfills, rivers, and oceans. By 2060, plastic waste is expected to triple.

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Producers often suggest recycling as a solution to plastic pollution, but is it enough? New research shows that for every 1 percent increase in plastic production, there’s a corresponding 1 percent increase in plastic pollution. Over half of branded plastic waste can be traced back to just 56 companies. Coca-Cola leads the list, accounting for 11 percent of branded waste, with PepsiCo following at 5 percent. If these companies reduced plastic production, we could see a significant decrease in plastic pollution.

However, the problem is only getting worse. By 2030, it’s estimated that 53 million tons of plastic waste will end up in the oceans every year, causing harm to the environment and human health. Plastic pollution costs society about A$3.8 trillion annually. Yet plastic recycling programs are limited in their effectiveness, and even recycled plastics eventually degrade into waste.

A global plastics treaty is in the works, with negotiators currently meeting in Canada. Despite bans on importing Russian oil, plastics continue to flood the market, with China and India refining and exporting plastic products from Russian crude.

Given this bleak outlook, what can be done? Producer responsibility schemes could help, forcing companies to cover the costs of managing plastic waste. In the European Union, such schemes have encouraged companies to rethink their packaging. By putting the cost back on the producers, they are incentivized to change their practices.

More drastic measures might be required, such as capping plastic production and mandating reductions over time. Countries could tax virgin plastic production or require minimum percentages of recycled content. These changes could begin to shift the balance, reducing plastic waste before it starts.

The alternative is grim: more plastic, more waste, and greater environmental costs. Solutions will require international cooperation, clear goals, and robust enforcement to reduce the flow of plastic into our world.

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