A growing plastic pollution leakage into aquatic ecosystems in recent years is projected to double by 2030, with dire consequences for human health, global economy, biodiversity and climate, according to a new UNEP assessment.
Released on October 21, 2021, the report “From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution” makes a call for drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastics for addressing the global crisis. The report is released ten days ahead of COP26.
The report notes that an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, removal of subsidies and a shift towards circular approaches will help reduce plastic waste.
In the forward, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said; “this assessment provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency of acting, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans. The assessment details the impacts of marine litter and plastic pollution – from the population level to the sub-cellular – revealing previously unknown aspects of the effects of micro plastics on physiology as well as their ecotoxicological effects on ecosystems, wildlife and humans.”
She made it clear that the major concern was the fate of breakdown products, such as chemical additives and micro plastics, many of which are known to be hazardous to both human and wildlife health as well as to ecosystems. The UN Executive Director also mentioned the evidence of micro plastics in a range of seafoods after being ingested by many different marine organisms.
- Amount of marine litter and plastic pollution growing rapidly: Emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are projected to nearly triple by 2040 without meaningful action. the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple from some 9-14 million tons per year in 2016 to a projected 23-37 million tons per year by 2040.
- Marine litter and plastics a serious threat to all marine life: Microplastics act as vectors for pathogenic organisms harmful to humans, fish and aquaculture stocks. When microplastics are ingested, they can cause changes in gene and protein expression, inflammation, disruption of feeding behaviour, decreases in growth, changes in brain development, and reduced filtration and respiration They can alter the reproductive success and survival of marine organisms and compromise the ability of keystone species and ecological “engineers” to build reefs or bioturbated sediments.
- Human health and well-being at risk: open burning of plastic waste, ingestion of seafood contaminated with plastics, exposure to pathogenic bacteria transported on plastics, and leaching out of substances of concern to coastal
- Hidden costs for the global economy: It is projected that by 2040 plastic leakage into the oceans could represent a 100 billion dollars annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs at expected volumes and recyclability. The global plastic market in 2020 has been estimated at around 580 billion dollar while the monetary value of losses of marine natural capital is estimated to be as high as 2,500 billion dollar per year.
- Marine litter and plastic pollution are land-based; Approximately 7,000 million of the estimated 9,200 million tons of cumulative plastic production between 1950 and 2017 became plastic waste, three-quarters of which was discarded and placed in landfills, became part of uncontrolled and mismanaged waste streams, or was dumped or abandoned in the environment, including at sea.
- Accumulation of marine litter and plastics occur over decades: The hotspots where plastics are accumulated are increasing. Major sources include the Mediterranean Sea, the Arctic Ocean and the East and Southeast Asian region.
- Technological advances and the growth of citizen science activities are improving detection of marine litter and plastic pollution, but consistency of measurements remains a challenge.
- Plastic recycling rates are less than 10 per cent and plastics-related greenhouse gas emissions are significant.