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Plastic pollution in oceans

August 2020: Approximately 200 million tonnes of plastic waste entered the Atlantic Ocean in 1950-2015. The volume of plastic waste is projected to triple in the next 20 years, increasing the need for more stringent policies to reduce the amount of plastic in use and significantly expand current waste management capacities.


Researchers estimated that approximately 17-47 million tonnes of the three most common types of plastic entered the Atlantic Ocean in 1950-2015. However, new evidence, which includes microplastics, suggests that this figure should be closer to 200 million tonnes. The revised figures measure polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene litter in large form and as microplastic pollution in the Atlantic. It finds that plastic pollution totals at 5% of all oceans and is predicted to triple in the next 20 years on current trends. The results coincide with other findings that suggest current government efforts to cut plastic waste will reduce the projected volume by only 7% by 2040. In addition, surface clean-up technologies for oceans have recently been found to have very modest impacts on ocean pollution and deliver a reduction of max 5% of surface pollution, raising concerns about efficacy and feasibility of reducing plastic pollution within our current systems.

Implications and opportunities

Higher levels of plastic pollution in the oceans lead to higher risks of toxicity in the environment and to humans. In addition, microplastics have been shows to transport viruses and bacteria, raising the risk of diseases for human and animals from ocean plastics. It poses a possible threat to food production and safety, particularly to aquaculture which is the world fastest growing food sector. The revised figures suggest that more stringent measures and policies to drastically reduce plastic waste and inspire innovation leading to systems changes are needed. Such measures could include improving waste collection, particularly in the developing world, increasing recycling capacities, investing in alternative materials, and better product design to reduce the amount of plastic used. Further, curbing the supply of large quantities of cheap virgin plastic to the market may strengthen recycling and reusing efforts that are economically viable for organisations. Such measures would require investments of $150 bn globally in the next five years. However, such investments could create as many as 700,000 jobs and yield $70bn in savings compared to $670bn costs to government of inefficient waste management between now and 2040.


Sources of plastic pollution, including how much plastic is going into the ocean, where from, and its effects remain poorly understood and further research is needed. In addition, the figures above do not include any potential impacts in the volume of plastic pollution resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.


Pabortsava, K., & Lampitt, R. S. (2020). High concentrations of plastic hidden beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Nature Communications, 11(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-020-17932-9 

Harvey, F., (2020). Plastic pollution in Atlantic at least 10 times worse than thought. Retrieved from

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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.