Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply. It could more than double by 2030, according to an assessment released on October 19 by the UN Environment Program (UNEP).
By 2040, seas and oceans will have three times the amount of plastic waste. Its volume will grow by 23-37 million tons annually.
This means that there will be approximately 50 kilograms of plastic per meter of coastline, states UNEP in its reports.
Pollution can kill marine organisms and birds from poisoning, hunger, or suffocation.
If companies don’t recycle their garbage, global fisheries and tourism will suffer. Business losses can be up to $100 billion annually. Most of the money will go to clean up the waters.
The volume of plastic waste entering the seas and oceans may almost triple by 2040, and its amount will increase by 23-37 million tons annually. With this forecast, the UNEP, in its report, urges states to urgently reduce the use of plastic and conduct careful monitoring in this area.
As UNEP noted, “plastic accounts for 85% of marine debris”, and by 2040 the volume of pollution of marine waters “will almost triple, adding 23 to 37 million waste annually to the oceans.” “This means that almost 50 kg of plastic will fall on each meter of the coastline,” the experts stated. “As a result, all marine life – from plankton and shellfish to birds, turtles, and mammals – is at risk of poisoning, behavioral disturbances, hunger, and suffocation,” they warned.
Our oceans are full of plastic. A new @UNEP assessment provides a strong scientific case for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans from source to sea. #CleanSeashttps://t.co/97DMOZD3Ee pic.twitter.com/3xjthnsTh2
— Inger Andersen (@andersen_inger) October 21, 2021
UNEP also drew attention to the severe economic losses caused by the pollution of seas and oceans with plastic waste. Global damage to the tourism industry, fisheries, aquaculture, including the cost of cleaning up the water area, ranged from $6 to 19 billion in 2018. By 2040, the “financial risk for business” associated with such pollution may reach, according to forecasts, $100 billion annually, if governments require companies to reimburse waste disposal and recycling costs.
As UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen stated, the report’s assessments “provide the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans, from source to sea.”
She reminded that such environmental pollutants pose a particular danger as microplastics and chemical additives, many of which are toxic. Andersen also called it “encouraging” that ocean pollution is “rapidly gaining public attention.” “It is critical to harness this momentum” and make the seas and oceans “clean, healthy and resilient,” she said.
The report urged governments to “immediately reduce” the use of plastic and “transform its entire value chain.” In addition, in their opinion, additional investments are needed in “more active and effective monitoring systems to determine the sources, volumes, and destinations of plastic.”
The report highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity, and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic plastic is crucial to overall addressing the global pollution crisis.
To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction.
Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea.
Solutions to hand
But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there and urgent action is taken.
The document is being released ten days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are also a climate problem.
For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15% of the whole global carbon budget – the amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals.
Recycling not enough
Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis.
They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics.
The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions.
Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain.
It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify plastic’s sources, scale, and fate. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.
Making a case for change
The Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, said that a significant concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems.
“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy, and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.
Currently, plastic accounts for 85% of all marine litter.
By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline.
Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation, and suffocation.
The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks, and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air.
In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities, and even cancer.
According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy.
Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year during 2018.
By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal.
The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation.
Earlier media reported that plastic had created a new ecosystem in the ocean. Scientists have named it “plastisphere.” You may read more here.