Plastic pollution reaches ‘unprecedented’ level; more than 1.7 trillion plastic particles found in oceans
Ocean plastic pollution has increased “rapidly and unprecedentedly” since 2005, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE. The world’s oceans are polluted by “plastic smog,” which consists of an estimated 170 trillion plastic particles that, if collected, would weigh about 2.3 million tonnes.
The research team analyzed global data collected between 1979 and 2019 from nearly 12,000 sampling sites in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea and found that this is much higher than previous estimates. Without urgent policy action, the rate at which plastic enters the ocean could increase by around 2.6 times between now and 2040.
Production of plastics, especially single-use plastics, has soared over the past few decades, while waste management systems have not kept pace. Only about 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled each year, meaning used products are more likely to end up in landfills, beaches, rivers and oceans.
Despite global efforts to reduce plastic pollution and carbon emissions, the world is still producing record amounts of single-use plastic waste, much of it made from polymers derived from fossil fuels.
Much of the plastic waste comes from land and ends up in the ocean. Once plastic enters the ocean, it tends to break down into tiny pieces. These particles are very difficult to clean up. Marine life can become entangled in or ingested by plastic. Plastic also leaches toxic chemicals into the water.
This is not just an environmental catastrophe, it is a huge climate problem. Fossil fuels are the raw materials for most plastics, which create planet-warming pollution throughout their lifecycle, from production to disposal. Accurately calculating how much plastic is in the ocean is a daunting task, and measuring and characterizing plastic in the ocean is very challenging.
Researchers have spent years poring over peer-reviewed papers and the unpublished discoveries of other scientists, trying to organize the record as broadly as possible, both in terms of time frame and geography. Most of the samples for this study were collected in the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans, and the researchers say more data is still needed in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and South Atlantic and South Pacific regions.
The study noted that since the 1970s, there have been numerous agreements aimed at stemming the flow of plastic pollution into the oceans, but these have mostly been voluntary, piecemeal and rarely included measurable targets. Researchers call for urgent international policy intervention and some effective solutions.
In recent years, governments around the world have announced policies to reduce single-use plastic use, banning products such as disposable straws, disposable cutlery, food containers, cotton swabs, bags and balloons. The state of California announced that it will reduce the sales of plastic packaging by 25% by 2032. The list of prohibited items has been expanded in the UK to include single-use trays, balloon sticks and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers. Bans have also been imposed in places such as the European Union, Australia and India.
The United Nations has agreed to develop a legally binding global agreement on plastics by 2024, the “most important environmental agreement since the Paris Agreement” that will cover the entire life cycle of plastics from production to disposal. But there is still considerable disagreement over whether this should include cuts in plastics manufacturing, which is expected to quadruple by 2050.
”Policies that reduce plastic production in the first place are the only real solution, especially as companies continue to find new ways to get more plastic into the market,” said Enke, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional administrator. Next. The plastic and petrochemical industries are preventing us from controlling the amount of plastic polluting our oceans.”
We now dump around 11 million tons of plastic into the oceans every year, and that number is projected to double by 2030 and triple by 2040 . The impact of plastic on tourism, fishing, aquaculture, and other costs such as clean-up is costly worldwide. Tackling plastic pollution is a huge challenge, especially when it comes to oceans, water bodies, and human health. Changing our relationship with plastic is everyone’s responsibility.