Plastic pollution in waterways could triple by 2040, UN warns

As the global pollution crisis continues to endanger the world’s ecosystems, people and climate, the United Nations on Thursday warned that “a drastic reduction in unnecessary, preventable and problematic plastic” – achieved through transition A rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables and a shift to more sustainable production and consumption patterns is essential to reduce waste on the scale needed.

“Continuing with the status quo is just not an option. “

From pollution to solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, a comprehensive new assessment and visualization from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), shows that plastic pollution in aquatic ecosystems has increased dramatically in recent years and is expected to more than double by 2030, exacerbating the negative consequences for ecology, public health and the economy.

“This assessment provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency of action and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans from source to sea,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, in a press release. “Of major concern is the fate of degradation products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, many of which are known to be toxic and dangerous to the health of humans and wildlife, as well as to ecosystems. “

Plastic accounts for 85% of marine litter, the report notes, and without significant interventions, plastic pollution in rivers and coasts could almost triple by 2040 – with 23 to 37 million tonnes of plastic waste dumped in the seas each year, against the current annual volume of 11 million metric tons.

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Plastic pollution is a serious threat to biodiversity. According to UNEP, “all marine life, from plankton and crustaceans to birds, turtles and mammals, face a serious risk of toxification, behavioral disturbances, starvation and suffocation” due to the increasing volume of waste. . Corals, mangroves and seagrass beds are also affected by plastic waste, which prevents them from receiving oxygen and light.

In addition, humans are “similarly vulnerable on many fronts to plastic pollution in water sources, which could cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and cancer,” explains UNEP. “Plastics are ingested by seafood, drinks and even common salt; they penetrate the skin and are inhaled when they are suspended in the air. “

The global economy, on the other hand, is not immune to the problem of plastic waste, which causes significant damage. According to UNEP, “the economic costs of marine plastic pollution in terms of its impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, as well as other costs such as clean-up, have been estimated to be at least 6 to 19 billion dollars worldwide. in 2018. “

By 2040, the agency adds, “there could be an annual financial risk of $ 100 billion for businesses if governments force them to cover waste management costs at expected volumes and recyclability. High plastic waste levels can also lead to an increase in illegal domestic waste and international waste disposal. “

In addition to the negative impacts of plastic pollution on the biosphere as well as on human health and livelihoods, the report, released 10 days before the start of COP 26, points out that plastic production is intensifying the climate emergency.

Plastic products are derived from petroleum and gas-based petrochemicals, and they create greenhouse gas emissions throughout their life cycle. “Using a life cycle assessment, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics in 2015 were 1.7 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) and are expected to increase to around 6.5 GtCO2e d ‘by 2050, or 15% of the global carbon budget,’ notes UNEP.

Further, the report points out, “the ocean is the largest carbon sink on the planet, storing up to 90% of the extra heat that carbon emissions have trapped in our atmosphere and a third of the extra carbon dioxide. generated since the industrial revolution. “Plastic waste damages aquatic ecosystems, making it more difficult for them” to both compensate for and remain resilient to climate change. “

The assessment, which will inform discussions at the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2022, follows another new analysis by Beyond Plastics at Bennington College, which shows that the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are increasing production, resulting in more waste and putting plastic “on track to overtake coal-fired power plants as a major contributor to climate change in the United States by 2030.”

“The speed at which plastic pollution in the oceans is gaining public attention is encouraging,” said Andersen. “It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean.”

As the report explains:

While the amount of marine plastics we have to tackle is so large it’s hard to understand, science tells us that most of the solutions we need are already there. Many regional, national and local activities are helping to reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean, such as the regional seas conventions; national bans on single-use plastic products; corporate and government commitments to reduce, redesign and reuse plastic products [and] increase the recycled plastic content of new products; curbside initiatives; and municipal bag bans.

“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% over the next two decades if we use the existing technologies and solutions.

However, “as long as we have the know-how, we need the political will and urgent action from governments to deal with the growing crisis,” the report continues. Despite being the world’s largest per capita plastic polluters, the US and UK have so far refused to join an international treaty to reduce the amount of plastic waste going to landfills and to habitats.

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“Continuing with the status quo is just not an option,” the report adds, nor is it possible to recycle to get out of the plastic pollution crisis.

“Recycling can help reduce plastic production and plastic waste,” say the authors. “However, a major problem is the low recycling rate of plastics around the world, which is currently less than 10%.”

Seemingly better alternatives to single-use plastics, including products labeled biodegradable, “present another problem,” the report warns, “as they can take years to degrade in the oceans and, as litter, can present. the same risks as conventional plastics. Plastic. “

The authors stress the systemic nature of the problem, highlighting “critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks compared to recycled materials, inconsistent efforts in the informal and formal management of plastic waste and the lack of consensus on global solutions. . “

Tackling the plastic pollution crisis requires immediate global cooperation to reduce waste generation, according to UNEP, which means “a transformation across the plastic value chain”.

“Further investments must be made in much more robust and effective surveillance systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic, and the development of a risk framework, which is currently lacking globally”, supports UNEP.

“Ultimately,” the agency adds, “a shift to circular approaches is needed, including sustainable consumption and production practices, accelerated development and adoption of alternatives by businesses, and increased awareness of consumers. consumers to enable more responsible choices “.

Bryce K. Locke