circular economy waste

More plastic in the sea than fish by 2050

There’s an extraordinary report out from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation this week, part of the flurry of ideas that always accompanies the World Economic Forum. It’s called The New Plastics Economy and it details the role of plastic in global industry, what it’s used for and where it ends up, and how circular economy principles could be applied.

I hadn’t realised how bad the situation is with plastics. We all know it’s bad for the environment, that it’s non-biodegradable and can end up in the seas. But I don’t think I’d ever seen the global trends, and the consequences for the environment if we carry on as projected.

It’s easy to forget when you have good recycling services locally, but at the moment just 2% of the world’s plastics are recycled. Much of it goes to landfill or gets incinerated, but a whole 32% ‘escapes’ the world’s waste collection systems altogether. I can actually see several examples of that from where I’m sitting right now, looking out towards Luton station. There’s a section of plastic wrapping that has entwined itself into a fence, spots of chewing gum on the pavement. There’s a plastic bag doing a fine impression of a washed-up jellyfish in a puddle in the car park.

Messy though it is, litter isn’t the main way that plastic ends up in the sea. Three quarters of ocean plastic comes from uncollected rubbish in places that have no formal systems to deal with it. The rest comes from badly managed collection systems or poorly placed landfill sites, illegal dumping or ocean-based activities such as fishing. Altogether 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year, a garbage truck’s worth every minute.

Plastic use is growing, and will double again in the coming decades. If the waste problem isn’t addressed, then by 2050 we will have crossed a remarkable line: ton for ton, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.


There’s plenty that can be done about this, and I’ll come back to the topic another time. For a start, half of ocean plastic comes from just five countries – China, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Investing in waste collection in these countries will be essential. Recycling needs to be drastically improved, recapturing the value in plastics. We need new forms of plastic. And we need innovation in packaging, as most of the plastic that ends up in the natural environment originated as packaging. Fundamentally, we need to take a circular economy approach to plastic, where it ceases to be a waste product and becomes a feedstock for industrial processes – and that is the subject of The New Plastics Economy if you’re interested in reading more on that.


    1. Yes, though both More or Less and the Ellen MacArthur Institute have missed the fact that it collides dramatically with another well publicised killer fact from a few years ago – that if current overfishing trends continue, there will be no wild fish left in the sea by 2048.

      In which case, it wouldn’t be hard for there to be more plastic than fish.

      Slack of the institute not to have shown all their workings before releasing their projections though. Oxfam wouldn’t have done that.

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