The world needs “to act now to avoid living in a sea of plastic by mid-century,” stresses a publication by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal. The report, ‘Marine Litter Vital Graphics,' which summarizes current knowledge on plastic litter in the oceans and highlights areas where more research is needed, predicts 33 billion tonnes of plastic will accumulate around the planet by 2050 if current trends continue.
Although the impact of marine litter on large marine creatures like turtles, whales, seas and seabirds is relatively well documented, the report stresses that it is “only part of the problem.” It explains that organisms at every level can be affected by plastic. The report discusses challenges related to plastics as a source of toxic chemicals in marine organisms as well as the impacts of plastics on human health.
Observing that plastics have only been mass-produced for approximately 60 years, the report states that it is not possible to know how long they will last in the marine environment, stressing that most plastics are extremely durable and not biodegradable. Rather than eliminating plastic, the report suggests the goal should be to use plastic more efficiently and in an environmentally sustainable way. For instance, the report states that the proportion of plastic that is recycled may not even reach 5% of production.
Infographics in the report illustrate: plastic size and its effects on animal groups; the portion of plastic waste mismanaged by countries; global plastic production; drivers of plastic in the economy and society; how plastics enter the food web; common and visible litter items on beaches; and natural processes affecting the distribution and fate of plastics. Two figures illustrate animal species that ingest and become entangled in plastic. Other infographics show how microplastics end up on consumers' plates and how microplastics are generated.
The report recommends changing consumption and production patterns to prevent plastic waste from entering the marine environment, with a focus on upstream prevention. It suggests: creating financial disincentives for the manufacture and use of plastics; changing behavior to encourage more sustainable consumption and production (SCP) patterns; reducing plastic; and recycling.
The report further recommends actions related to research and innovation; policy implementation; extended producer responsibility; investment in waste management and wastewater treatment infrastructure; bans; and clean-ups and fishing for litter. It describes UN instruments with global and regional scope that address the oceans, plastics and related issues, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the London Convention, the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA), and regional seas conventions and bodies, among others.
The report also highlights linkages among action on plastics and progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), noting that four out of the 17 SDGs have associated targets relevant to marine plastic pollution. SDG target 6.3 focuses on untreated wastewater and increasing recycling. SDG target 11.6 addresses municipal and other waste management. SDG target 12.4 calls for environmentally sound management of chemicals and wastes throughout their life cycle and target 12.5 recommends reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. SDG Target 14.1 addresses prevention and reduction of marine pollution, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris.
Photo courtesy of Alaa Al Masri