Humans have produced approximately 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic to date, though only 9% of this has been recycled. Through this voracious appetite for plastic and the resulting uncontrolled waste stream, an estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic has contaminated ocean ecosystems, with a further 12 million tonnes entering the marine environment per year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Plastic fragments - including microplastics - are now so ubiquitous in freshwaters and in the ocean that, if current trends continue, by 2050 without significant intervention, this plastic debris could weigh more than all the fish in the sea.
Despite the urgency and scale of the problem, current approaches to collect plastic from rivers and oceans are ineffective. In rivers, manual plastic removal using nets remains the mainstay, but is inefficient (<1% collected) and not economically viable in the developed world.
Efforts to collect plastic from ocean environments are a poor use of resources, with studies showing it is 30x more effective to collect plastic before it has reached deep-water environments.
In 2018, the increased effort of organisations across the world has created huge awareness about this problem, which has resulted in greater levels of action. Unfortunately, their outcomes are far from the source of the problem; polluted rivers of developing economies that do not have waste management systems.
The final outcome is that plastic pollution is set to triple until 2030 without significant interventions, making the future of the oceans and humanity bleak.