0ton of plastic Have been used in the U.S. since you opened this page OpinionHow to end plastic pollution on Earth for good Journalist Tatiana Schlossberg is the author of “ Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have ” and writes the newsletter “ News From a Changing Planet .” Someday, if future forms of intelligent life look for evidence of human existence in the 20th and 21st centuries, they should have an easy time finding us in the geologic record. Just look for the plastic. Between 1950 and 2021, humanity produced about 11 billion metric tons of virgin plastic — that’s the weight of 110,000 U.S. aircraft carriers. Only about 2 billion tons of this is still in use. The rest — some 8.7 billion tons — is waste: 71 percent has ended up in landfills or somewhere else in the environment, including the ocean; 12 percent has been recycled; 17 percent has been incinerated. At the rate we’re going, global plastic waste will rise 60 percent by 2050. But now comes hope that it’s possible to stop the accumulation: Last year, more than 175 countries agreed to develop a legally binding international treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040. And new research demonstrates that it is actually possible: with a combination of nine policies, countries could reduce annual plastic waste by more than 87 percent. (University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Berkeley) Global plastic waste: 3.2 billion tons from 2010 to 2050 (University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Berkeley) Global plastic waste: 3.2 billion tons from 2010 to 2050 (University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Berkeley) Global plastic waste: 3.2 billion tons from 2010 to 2050 As things stand, from 2010 to 2050 alone, the world could generate enough to cover all of Manhattan with a pile of plastic more than two miles high. A less-ambitious treaty could include reducing single-use packaging by 30 percent and a 20 percent minimum recycling-rate mandate. Along with other policies, such an agreement might reduce plastic waste by 16 percent. A highly ambitious treaty might require a 90 percent reduction in single-use packaging and a 40 percent minimum recycling rate mandate, cutting plastic waste by half. A few of these policies would have much greater impact than others, especially if negotiators are ambitious. Picking the right policies will determine whether the treaty will be effective in the end. Here are some of the most effective policies, according to data gathered by scientists from the University of California: A mandate that all new plastic products contain at least 30 percent recycled plastic would, alone, reduce mismanaged plastic waste by about 30 percent, from about 108 million tons to 77 million tons by 2050. But that’s still too much. So the scientists also suggest capping plastic production at 2025 levels . Both policies combined would bring mismanaged plastic waste down to 68 million tons. Add in a high consumer tax on plastics , and it would be possible to avert about 10 million more metric tons of pollution. If we use the revenue from that tax to invest $50 billion in global waste infrastructure , we could reduce pollution to one-third of the business-as-usual scenario. Some people might be surprised that banning single-use items — plastic bags, straws or polystyrene packaging — wouldn’t be the most effective solution, though these plastics make up a disproportionately large share of the plastic waste in rivers and oceans. Banning polystyrene alone would reduce plastic waste by 500,000 tons by 2050; for single-use plastics made from other polymers, such as polypropylene, a ban could reduce pollution by 13.7 million tons. Yet such bans, beneficial as they would be, would not move the needle as much as other measures. And it is essential to move the needle. Plastic waste threatens ecosystem health, biodiversity and efforts to address climate change, and it is also a health concern and environmental-justice issue. Microplastics have been found in breast milk and in our blood. Around the world, up to 60 percent of all recycled plastic is collected by waste pickers, often members of poor and marginalized communities, who suffer from inhaling caustic fumes from burning plastic and drinking water heavily contaminated with microplastics. “The more plastic we make, the more we find it in our bodies — we are polluting ourselves,” said Monica Medina, head of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who, as an assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs under President Biden, participated in previous international negotiations. U.N. negotiators just finished meeting again in Nairobi to begin crafting the actual treaty, in hopes of completing it by the end of next year, though progress seems to have stalled, a result of excessive influence from oil and gas industry lobbyists, according to nongovernmental organizations. The United States, which produces more plastic waste than any other country, has a responsibility and an opportunity to lead the world in the right direction. Navigating the legal vagaries and facing up to the powerful fossil fuel industry won’t be easy, but this is an extraordinary opportunity. We know that if we do nothing, we’ll bury ourselves under mountains of plastic. But if we try, we can rewrite the geologic record of our planet. We can end plastic pollution on Earth. About this story Design and development by Yan Wu. Design direction by Sergio Peçanha. Editing by Mary Duenwald. Sources: Global Plastic Policy Tool by University of California at Santa Barbara and Berkeley. The 3D plastic bottle displayed at the top is by Jeremy E. Grayson via Sketchfab, shared under a Creative Commons attribution license. Modifications have been applied.

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