Professor Jacqueline McGlade
26 October 2021
Marine litter and plastic pollution are accumulating in the world’s oceans at an unprecedented rate. The volume of plastics currently in the oceans has been estimated at between 75 million and 199 million tons. Plastic pollution is becoming part of the Earth’s fossil record and has even created a new habitat known as the “plastisphere”. Plastics are now found in all the world’s marine ecosystems and all forms of marine life, not just birds, seals and turtles.
Marine litter and plastics get into the oceans via uncontrolled waste streams on land, treated and untreated wastewater outflows, wear and tear on plastic products including textiles and vehicle tyres, run-off from land, leakages from plastics used in agriculture, as well as directly from maritime industries.
Plastics, especially microplastics, cause lethal and sub-lethal effects on marine life through entanglement, smothering, ingestion, and exposure to associated chemicals. They also are of potential risk to human health, through seafood consumption, where they mix with microplastics taken up via inhalation and absorption through the skin, and accumulate in organs. Some of the chemicals associated with plastics are also known to have serious health impacts, especially in women.
From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution
The landmark report From Pollution to Solution: A global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) ahead of the COP26, reveals the impact of marine litter and plastic pollution in the environment and their effects on the health of ecosystems, wildlife and humans. It shows that there is a growing threat in all ecosystems from source to sea and while we have the know-how, we need the political will and urgent action by government to tackle the crisis. The report calls for the immediate reduction of plastics and encourages a transformation across the whole plastic value chain. It looks at 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. The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for global cooperation.
As Lead Author of the report, it has been incredible to observe the acceleration in research and information that is now emerging about the sources, sinks and the pervasive impacts of plastics on all forms of marine life and our own health. It is especially worrying to see increasing levels of plastic production, as part of a global trade valued at a trillion dollars trade, when we know that the associated greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of value of the marine ecosystem go largely unchecked and unaccounted for. Fortunately, the last six months have seen government, citizens and business coming together to find real solutions and even opportunities to “turn off the tap” of plastics.
Key findings of the report:
Since the publication of the 2016 UNEP report Marine Plastic Debris and Microplastics – Global Lessons and Research to Inspire Action and Guide Policy Change, substantial new research has shown the extensive damage that marine litter, especially plastics and their breakdown products, causes to marine life and ecosystem functioning as well as potential risks to human health.
The amount of marine litter and plastic pollution has been growing rapidly
Emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are projected to nearly triple by 2040 without meaningful action.
Marine litter and plastics present a serious threat to all marine life, while also influencing the climate
Plastics are the largest, most harmful and most persistent fraction of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of total marine waste. Plastics can alter global carbon cycling through their effect on plankton and primary production in marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems.
Human health and well-being are at risk
Risks to human health and well-being arise from the 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 waters.
There are hidden costs for the global economy
Marine litter and plastic pollution present serious threats to the livelihoods of coastal communities as well as to shipping and port operations. 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 cleanups, are estimated to have been at least United States dollars (US$) 6-19 billion globally in 2018. It is projected that by 2040 plastic leakage into the oceans could represent a US$ 100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs at expected volumes and recyclability.
Marine litter and plastics are threat multipliers
Marine litter and plastics can act together with other stressors, such as climate change and overexploitation of marine resources, to cause far greater damage than if they occurred in isolation.
The main sources of 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. With global cumulative plastic production between 1950 and 2050 predicted to reach 34,000 million tons, it is urgent to reduce global plastic production and flows of plastic waste into the environment.
The movement and accumulation of marine litter and plastics occur over decades
The movement of marine litter and plastics on- and offshore is controlled by ocean tides, currents, waves and winds, with floating plastics accumulating in the ocean gyres and sinking items concentrating in the deep sea, river deltas, mud belts and mangroves. There can be significant time intervals between losses on land and accumulation in offshore waters and deepsea sediments. More than half the plastics found floating in some gyres were produced in the 1990s and earlier.
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
There are currently 15 major operational monitoring programmes linked to marine litter action co-ordination, data collection frameworks, and large-scale data repository and portal initiatives, but the data and information from them are largely unconnected.
Plastic recycling rates are less than 10 per cent and plastics-related greenhouse gas emissions are significant, but some solutions are emerging
During the past four decades global plastic production has more than quadrupled, with the global plastic market valued at around US$ 580 billion in 2020. At the same time, the estimated global cost of municipal solid waste management is set to increase from US$ 38 billion in 2019 to US$ 61 billion in 2040 under a business-as-usual scenario. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to approximately 2.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2040, or 19 per cent of the global carbon budget. A major problem is the low recycling rate of plastics, which is currently less than 10 per cent.
Progress is being made at all levels, with a potential global instrument in sight
However, none of the international policies agreed since 2000 includes a global, binding, specific and measurable target limiting plastic pollution. This has led many governments, as well as business and civil society, to call for a global instrument on marine litter and plastic pollution.
Effectively tackling the problems of marine litter and plastic pollution requires a wide range of actions directed at the generation, disposal, management and leakage of waste from land- and sea-based sources, as well as measures related to plastics’ overall production volumes and chemical make-up. Finding solutions requires greater engagement by civil society, businesses, industries and governments to bring about necessary changes in policies, attitudes and practices. Citizens continue to have a major role to play, including by taking action and changing their own behaviours in order to substantially reduce marine litter and plastic pollution. The businesses and industries in which changes will be needed include oil and gas extractors and plastic resin producers, extruders and product manufacturers, automotive manufacturers and textile manufacturers, consumer product companies, packaging companies, retailers, waste hauliers and landfillers, materials recovery operators, waste brokers and recyclers.
Policymakers have the opportunity to create the right mix of legislative and fiscal instruments to incentivize greater disclosure, support data sharing and transparency, provide financing, establish a transparent and effective regulatory environment, and support research and development to address the challenge of marine litter and plastic pollution.
Professor Jacqueline McGlade is the lead author of 'From Pollution to Solution'. She is Professor of Natural Prosperity, Sustainable Development and Knowledge Systems at the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) at UCL and lead scientist for PROCOL Kenya.
Full report, key findings and further resources can be found on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) website:
Launch event 21 October 2021 (recording): https://www.gpmarinelitter.org/news/news/explore-pollution-solution-global-assessment-marine-litter-and-plastic-pollution
‘Ask a Scientist’: Jacqueline McGlade speaks about marine litter - how it affects animals and human health and what we can do to reduce the amount of pollution going into the oceans:
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