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Plastic pollution

Over the last 70 years, plastic - an incredibly malleable, versatile, and durable material - infiltrated the market and permeated seemingly every nook and cranny on Earth. Plastics can provide important benefits, from life-saving medical devices to safe and long-life food storage. However, unnecessary and avoidable plastics, particularly single-use packaging and disposable items, are polluting our planet at alarming rates. Decades of economic growth and an increasing dependency on throw-away plastics has led to a torrent of unmanaged waste that pours into lakes, rivers, coastal environments, and finally out to sea, triggering a ripple of problems.

From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution shows that there is a growing threat in all ecosystems from source to sea. It also shows that while we have the know-how, we need the political will and urgent action by government to tackle the mounting crisis

The problem has burgeoned into a global crisis requiring both immediate and sustained attention and action. This assessment provides the definitive wake-up call to the ubiquity of marine litter and the adverse impacts of plastic pollution – from environmental degradation to economic losses for communities and industries, to human health risks – and shows us how we can do better. It’s time to join hands to turn the tide on marine litter and plastic pollution by implementing the many – great and small – solutions at hand, with urgency, innovation, commitment and accountability.

  • Plastics are the largest, most harmful and persistent fraction of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of total marine waste.
  • Marine litter is found in increasing volumes along our coastlines and estuaries, in massive swirling mid-ocean currents, on remote islands, in sea ice
  • The estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic currently entering the ocean annually will triple in the next twenty years. This means that between 23 and 37 million metric tons of plastic will flow into the oceans every year by 2040. That is equivalent to 50 kilograms of plastics per metre of coastline worldwide 

Harm to Marine Life

Marine litter and plastic pollution are problematic for many reasons. Plastics don’t biodegrade (decompose naturally in a way that’s not harmful to the environment). Instead, they break down over time into ever smaller pieces known as microplastics and nanoplastics, which can have unquantifiable adverse impacts.

Impacts to marine life range from physical or chemical harm to individual animals, to wider effects on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Pieces of plastic have been found in the digestive system of many aquatic organisms, including in every marine turtle species and nearly half of all surveyed seabird and marine mammal species.

There are less obvious impacts too. Not only do the toxins already found in plastics affect the ocean food web but plastic pieces are known to soak up pollutants that flow off land into the sea, including pharmaceutical and industrial waste. The toxicity can transfer through the food chain as marine species eat and are eaten. There is also a growing concern about non-native species hitching a ride across the ocean on floating trash into foreign seas and soil, such as algae, mollusks and barnacles, which can invade and degrade distant aquatic environments and species. It would be remiss not to mention that most plastic garbage in the ocean eventually sinks to the seabed like a submerged trash pile, smothering coral reefs and seafloor marine life below, explains the assessment.

Harm to Humans

Humans are also at risk from marine plastic pollution. Environmental health is inextricably linked to human health. The pervasiveness of microplastics across our planet raises serious concerns for people's safety. New research shows that people are inhaling microplastics through the air, consuming them through food and water and even absorbing them through the skin. Microplastics have even been found within our lungs, livers, spleen, and kidneys, and one study recently found microplastics in the placentas of newborn babies.

The full extent of the impact on human health is still unknown since the research is nascent. There is, however, substantial evidence that plastics-associated chemicals, such as methyl mercury, plasticizers and flame retardants, can enter the body and are linked to health concerns, especially in women. Scientists also believe that some of the common chemicals found in plastics, such as bisphenol A, phthalates, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), could leach into the body. These chemicals have been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and cancer. That’s reason enough for a precautionary approach to be adopted.

Plastics and Climate Change

Plastics are also a climate problem. Not everyone knows that plastic is produced from oil, a fossil fuel. The more plastic we make, the more fossil fuel required, the more we intensify the climate crisis in a continual negative feedback loop. Also, plastic products create greenhouse gas emissions across their whole lifecycle. If no action is taken, greenhouse gas emissions from the production, recycling and incineration of plastics could account for 19 per cent of the Paris Agreement's total allowable emissions in 2040 if we're on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The “Pollution to Solution"

"Breaking the Plastic Wave", a global analysis of how to change the trajectory of plastic waste, reveals that we can reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean by about 80 per cent in the next two decades if we utilize existing technologies and solutions.

  • Improve waste management systems so that the right infrastructure is available to receive plastic waste and ensure its reuse.
  • Enhance circularity by promoting more sustainable consumption and production practices across the entire plastic value chain.
  • Engage consumers in addressing plastic pollution to influence the market and to inspire behavioral change.
  • Close the tap by phasing out unnecessary, avoidable, and most problematic plastic items and replacing these with alternative materials, products and services.
  • Deal with the legacy through effective monitoring to identify sources, quantities and the fate of plastic.
  • Improve and strengthen governance at all levels.
  • Enhance knowledge and monitor effectiveness using sound science.
  • Improve finance with technical assistance and capacity building.

Source : UNEP

Related Resources

  1. Plastic - From Pollution to Solution
  2. Beat plastic pollution
  3. End Plastic Pollution

Last Modified : 5/28/2024

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