Climate change may be the poster boy for environmentalists at the moment, but it’s just one of a range of crises that we currently face. We’re sending species extinct at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background extinction rate and are on track to see up to 50% of species disappear my mid century. Industrial pollution, habitat destruction, resource depletion – all have their own shocking statistics. At this rate we won’t have to wait for nuclear war or artificially intelligence to finish us off; our own lack of intelligence will manage to do the job perfectly well.

Most statistics don’t adequately convey the horror they imply, but as an indicator of just how mindlessly we are trashing the planet, a calculation from The World Economic Forum (WEF) and Ellen MacArthur Foundation comes close:

By 2050 the amount of plastic in our oceans will weigh more than all the fish!

At the moment we dump 8 million tonnes of plastic per year into the ocean, the equivalent of one garbage truck per minute. On current trends that will grow to two garbage trucks per minute by 2030 and four by 2050! Oceanic plastic causes real harm to a range of species, and it could be a significant cause of extinctions all on its own.

How to waste $80 billion per year

Most of the plastic entering the ocean comes from packaging. Most of that packaging is only used for a few minutes, hours or maybe days then is discarded without a second thought. After just a short, single use, the value of plastic packaging material lost to the economy adds up to over $80,000,000,000 annually.

Easy fix

Compared to many environmental issues, fixing this should be relatively simple. Together, the US and Europe produce 40% of the world’s plastics but are responsible for just 2% of the amount that leaks into the oceans. Asia, with 45% of global plastic production, generates 82% of ocean plastic. Clearly, good waste infrastructure and the right attitude by the public could see that level of leakage slashed. Rather than new technology, much of the problem seems to be one of governance and behaviour.

Many countries of all levels of development have imposed either bans or taxes on plastic bags, often limited to those below a particular thickness. While some programs have been successful others are ignored, and they only apply to a limited range of plastic products. However, they show that there is at least an understanding of the problem that plastic wastes poses and a willingness to do something about it.

Let’s make sure it isn’t yet another case of too little, too late.

Image: Chris Jordan via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters & Wikipedia. CC BY 2.0