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Plastic waste fills a beach on April 18, 2018 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo: Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

Plastic waste fills a beach on April 18, 2018 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo: Jes Aznar via Getty Images)

Plastic Pollution in Waterways Could Triple by 2040, Warns UN

"This assessment provides 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."

Kenny Stancil

As the global pollution crisis continues to endanger the world's ecosystems, people, and climate, the United Nations warned Thursday that "a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic plastic"—achieved through a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and a shift to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption—is key to cutting down on waste at the needed scale.

"Continuing with business-as-usual is simply not an option."

From Pollution to Solution: A Global Assessment of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution, a new comprehensive assessment and visualization from the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), shows that plastic pollution in aquatic ecosystems has risen substantially in recent years and is projected to more than double by 2030, exacerbating detrimental ecological, public health, and economic consequences.

"This assessment provides 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," Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said in a statement. "A major concern is the fate of breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, many of which are known to be toxic, and hazardous to both human and wildlife health, and ecosystems."

Plastic accounts for 85% of marine litter, the report notes, and without meaningful interventions, plastic pollution in waterways and on coastlines could nearly triple by 2040—with 23 to 37 million metric tons of plastic waste flowing into seas each year, up from the current annual volume of 11 million metric tons.

Plastic pollution poses a dire threat to biodiversity. According to UNEP, "All marine life—from plankton and shellfish to birds, turtles, and mammals—faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation, and suffocation" due to the increasing volume of litter. Corals, mangroves, and seagrass beds are also adversely affected by plastic waste, which prevents them from receiving oxygen and light.

Moreover, human beings are "similarly vulnerable on multiple fronts to plastic pollution in water sources, which could cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities, and cancer," UNEP explains. "Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks, and even common salt; they penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air."

The global economy, meanwhile, is not immune to the problem of plastic waste, which causes significant harm. According to UNEP, "The economic costs of marine plastic pollution with respect to its impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture, together with other costs such as those of clean-ups, were estimated to be at least USD $6 billion to $19 billion globally in 2018."

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

In addition to the negative impacts of plastic pollution on the biosphere as well as human health and livelihoods, the report, published 10 days before the start of COP 26, emphasizes that the production of plastics intensifies the climate emergency.

Plastic products are derived from oil and gas-based petrochemicals, and they create greenhouse gas emissions across their entire life cycle. "Using a life cycle analysis, 2015 greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e), and are projected to increase to approximately 6.5 GtCO2e by 2050, or 15% of the global carbon budget," UNEP notes.

Furthermore, the report points out, "the ocean is the planet's largest carbon sink, storing as much as 90% of the additional heat that carbon emissions have trapped in our atmosphere and one-third of the additional carbon dioxide generated since the industrial revolution." Plastic waste damages aquatic ecosystems, making it harder for them "to both offset and remain resilient to climate change."

The assessment, which will inform discussions at the U.N. Environment Assembly in 2022, comes on the heels of another new analysis by Beyond Plastics at Bennington College, which shows that the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are expanding production, leading to more waste and putting plastics "on track to outpace coal plants as a major contributor to climate change in the U.S. by 2030."

"The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing 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 quantity of marine plastics that we need to tackle is so large it's hard to fathom, science tells us that most of the solutions we need already exist. Numerous regional, national, and local activities are helping reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean, such as the Regional Seas Conventions; national bans on single-use plastic products; business and government commitments to reduce, redesign, and reuse plastic products [and] increase the recycled plastic content in 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% in the next two decades if we utilize existing technologies and solutions.

However, "while we have the know-how, we need the political will and urgent action by governments to tackle the mounting crisis," the report continues. Despite being the world's biggest per-capita plastic polluters, both the United States and the United Kingdom have so far refused to join an international treaty to curb the amount of plastic waste destined for landfills and habitats.

"Continuing with business-as-usual is simply not an option," the report adds, nor is it possible to recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis.

"Recycling can help to reduce plastic production and plastic waste," say the authors. "However, a major problem is the low recycling rate of plastics worldwide, 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 may take a number of years to degrade in the oceans and, as litter, can present the same risks as conventional plastic."

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

Addressing the plastic pollution crisis requires immediate global cooperation to slash the production of waste, says UNEP, which means "a transformation across the whole plastic value chain."

"Further investments need to be made in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale, and fate of plastic, and the development of a risk framework, which is currently missing on a global level," UNEP argues.

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

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