If plastic production and waste generation continue to grow at current rates, the annual mass of plastic waste ending up in the land environment, the lakes, river seas, oceans and landfills has been projected to more than double by 2050.
Moreover, the cumulative mass of ocean plastic could by 2025 increase tenfold on 2010 levels.
“Up to 78 per cent of the plastic pollution problem can be solved by 2040 using current knowledge and technologies and at a lower net cost for governments when compared to the current ‘do nothing’ scenario.
“However, because of plastic’s long degradation time, even a 78 per cent reduction from current business-as-usual pollution rates would still result in a massive accumulation of plastic waste in the environment as well as large quantities of toxic greenhouse gas emissions from plastic burning in landfills.”
This is the conclusion reached by the international scientists who participated in a study to evaluate different scenarios towards zero plastic pollution that was published in the Science journal last July. The study recommends the most aggressive intervention possible across the entire plastic cycle in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.
Previous studies have estimated that approximately eight million metric tons (Mt) of macro-plastic and 1.5 Mt of primary micro-plastic enter the ocean annually. Micro-plastics are less than 5mm in size and macro-plastics are larger than that. Three-quarters of all the garbage in the ocean is plastic. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the world’s oceans.
Despite the magnitude of these flows, the efficacy and economic costs of solutions proposed to solve the plastic waste problem remain unknown and a global evidence-based strategy, that includes practical and measurable interventions aimed at reducing plastic pollution, does not yet exist.
Primary micro-plastics are tiny particles of plastic designed to be that size for commercial use, such as in cosmetics or the microfibres shed from clothing and other textiles. Secondary micro-plastics are particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles or fishing nets. This breakdown is caused by exposure to the elements, like the sun’s radiation and ocean waves.
Micro-plastics are also increasingly found in the human food system. Their impacts on human health are difficult to assert and require further research. Again, policymakers ignore this threat altogether.
Plastic being manufactured is increasingly made from composite materials, which means more than one type of plastic. The complex composition of multi-material plastics limits the ability to sort and reprocess, decreasing further the economic attractiveness of recycling. The diversity of polymer types, surface contamination and the thin composition of huge volumes of plastic waste, such as plastic packing, wrapping and bags, make it impossible to recycle it.
Mismanaged plastic waste in dump sites that is released into the environment presents a range of risks to human and ecological health. Substantial quantities of toxic, greenhouse gases will continue to be emitted into the environment as plastic trash is openly burned in landfills. Even in the best of possible scenarios, approximately 250 million metric tons of waste plastic would accumulate in open dump sites from 2016 to 2040 and remains a potential source of environmental pollution.
By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the world’s oceans- David Marinelli
There is overwhelming evidence that plastic is negatively affecting the health of wildlife and in many cases it is deadly. Many hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and seabirds are killed each year after ingesting or getting entangled in plastic.
Plastic is a contributor to the dramatic loss of biodiversity on earth. Nearly 700 marine species and over 50 freshwater species are known to have ingested or become entangled in plastic. Marine wildlife and seabirds cannot discriminate between plastic trash and the food items that they would normally find in the oceans and seas. We also know that plastic is ingested by a wide range of land animals.
There are five marine species directly impacted by plastic pollution: in 2018 scientists examined more than 100 sea turtles and plastic was found in every one of them; more than 50 species of fish ingest plastic debris; seals get easily caught in plastic packing and rubber bands; plastic pollution leads to the death of one million seabirds every year; whales have been found dead with 40 kilograms of plastic in their stomach. These are just five of 800 species affected by marine debris.
The study highlights a couple of exceptionally important points. One being that, notwithstanding the obvious harm that plastic pollution causes to the environment, our health and wildlife, neither the petrochemical industry nor governments have shown any interest in quantifying the cost of plastic pollution to the global or national economies and to our well-being. The other is that whenever the problem of plastic pollution is discussed in official fora it is always framed as a consumer behaviour issue or a matter of improving efficiency in the plastic cycle through technological innovation.
The truth reflects an entirely different situation. The fossil fuel petrochemical industry is deliberately flooding the market with plastic. From domestic appliances to clothing and toys, from car parts to food containers, bottles and packaging, plastic is all we find to buy.
The arguments in favour of plastic producers are deceitfully misleading. What we need is less plastic, not more technology.
Plastic pollution has, since the 1950s, been a production problem. The producer is the polluter. Plastic manufacturing is out of control and desperately needs to be cut down to size.
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