A flexible risk assessment framework for marine plastic pollution that synthesizes waste management and ecological impact data
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The vast quantity of plastic in the world's ocean poses an urgent problem for marine ecosystems and coastal communities. While considerable research has aimed to understand how plastics impact marine life, there remains a gap in connecting this knowledge with waste management practices. Because these practices often determine the end fate of plastic items, bridging this gap is critical to reducing the flow of harmful plastics into the ocean. The framework proposed here identifies policy actions to reduce consumption of high-impact plastics using a compound risk score that encompasses both an item's likelihood of entering the ocean and its negative ecological impact. We illustrate the framework's application using a case study of single-use plastic (SUP) consumption at a large Canadian university. We quantified SUPs purchased over one year at the University of British Columbia and collected data from its associated waste management system to identify factors that influence an item's end fate. We used these data to estimate the relative risk of items exiting the recycling stream, then combined this with published data on the items' marine impacts to calculate their compound risk scores. The results identify high-risk plastic items to prioritize in waste reduction strategies and lower-risk alternatives. The results also highlight specific policy avenues to improve the efficiency of the focal waste management system. This framework is flexible to diverse contexts, requiring only information about plastic consumption and waste management practices. It is thus an accessible and useful tool to support local transitions toward a reduced marine footprint.