Plastic waste is increasingly becoming a global issue as it continues to accumulate and dominate the ocean. As such, many believe that there will soon be more plastic than humans, and the situation will be beyond our control.
As the agency responsible for setting the global environmental agenda, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has released its most recent report. According to the comprehensive assessment entitled a faster transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the elimination of subsidies, and a shift toward circular approaches are the best ways to reduce plastic waste.
Plastic pollution is a menace to the ecosystem from consumers to the sea. While this is not new, the study also suggests that we still require government assistance to take drastic action to stop the crisis. The evaluation will be used to inform debates at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in 2022 when governments will gather to decide on a worldwide cooperation strategy.
Per the assessment report, plastic pollution in marine environments has increased in recent years, with estimates that it will double by 2030. To a great extent, this will pose a substantial threat to human health, the global economy, biodiversity, and the climate. This necessitates immediate action.
Having been released ten days before the COP26 in Glasgow, the study highlights that plastics are a climate problem as well: Going by a life cycle analysis, plastics’ greenhouse gas emissions were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2015, and are expected to rise to around 6.5 GtCO2e by 2050, or 15% of the global carbon budget.
Zero chance of recycling our way out of plastic pollution
The report also stated that plastic makes up 85% of marine litter and warns that by 2040, the amount of plastic pollution pouring into marine areas will have nearly tripled, adding 23-37 million metric tons of plastic waste to the ocean each year. This equates to around 50 kilograms of plastic every meter of coastline around the planet.
As a result, all marine life confronts a serious risk of toxification, behavioral disorders, hunger, and asphyxia, from plankton and shellfish to birds, turtles, and mammals. Plastic garbage is also known to suffocate corals, mangroves, and seagrass beds, preventing them from absorbing oxygen and light.
The authors of the research study cast doubt on the possibility of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution catastrophe. They caution against potentially harmful alternatives to single-use and other plastic products, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which represent a chemical threat similar to conventional plastics.
The evaluation examines market shortcomings such as the low cost of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks compared to recycled materials, fragmented efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and a lack of global consensus on solutions.
The UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen agrees with this assessment and calls for action. In his words: “This evaluation provides the most compelling scientific evidence to date for the need to act now, and for concerted action to safeguard and restore our oceans from source to sea.”
He also voiced his concern about the breakdown of these items, such as microplastics and chemical additives, many of which are known to be dangerous to human and wildlife health, as well as ecosystems. “It’s encouraging to see how quickly ocean plastic pollution is gaining public notice. We must seize this opportunity to focus on the possibilities for a clean, healthy, and resilient ocean,” he added.
Plastic pollution in water sources puts the human body at risk on several levels, including hormonal alterations, developmental issues, reproductive abnormalities, and cancer. Plastics are consumed through seafood, beverages, and even common salt; they pass through the skin and are inhaled when exposed to the atmosphere.
Plastic pollution on the global economy
The global economy is not immune to the consequences of plastic trash. The economic costs of plastic pollution, including the impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture, as well as other costs such as clean-ups, were estimated to be at least USD 6-19 billion globally in 2018.
With estimates that by 2040, businesses could face USD 100 billion annual financial risks if compelled to cover waste management costs at expected volumes and recyclability. High volumes of a plastic garbage can also contribute to an increase in illegal rubbish dumping both domestically and internationally.
A way forward?
Finally, the evaluation recommends that plastics be reduced immediately, as well as a restructuring of the entire plastic value chain. Further investments are needed in far more comprehensive and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale, and fate of plastic, as well as the development of a global risk framework, which is now lacking.
To enable more responsible choices, a change to circular approaches is required, which includes sustainable consumption and production practices, rapid development and acceptance of alternatives by enterprises, and enhanced consumer knowledge.