Going by United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) latest assessment, plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030. Plastics are however, the largest, most harmful and most persistent fraction of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of total marine waste.
The assessment examines the magnitude and severity of marine litter and plastic pollution and reviews existing solutions and actions. The assessment demonstrates that there is a growing threat from marine litter and plastic pollution in all ecosystems from source to sea.
It provides a comprehensive update on current research (and knowledge gaps) with respect to direct impacts on marine life, risks posed to ecosystems and human health, and social and economic costs.
Overall, the assessment, which is intended to inform evidence-based action at all levels, underscores the need for urgent, global action. It shows that while we have the know-how, we need the political will and urgent action to tackle this mounting crisis.
The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for global cooperation.
Pollution today is pervasive and persistent. While the world has achieved significant economic growth over the past few decades, it has been accompanied by large amounts of pollution, with significant impacts on human health and ecosystems and the ways in which some of the major Earth systems processes, such as the climate, are functioning.
This report describes the pollution challenge, explores what is already being done to address pollution, and proposes 50 focused and actionable interventions to address pollution in all its forms. The report is a call to act towards a pollution-free planet.
The report however, highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic, is crucial to addressing the global pollution crisis overall.
To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction.
Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution , the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea. But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there, and urgent action is taken.
The document is being released 10 days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are a climate problem as well.
For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals.
Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics.
The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions.
Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption, and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain. It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.
For UNEP’s Executive Director, Inger Andersen, 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.”
She said that a major concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems.
“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.
Currently, plastic accounts for 85 per cent of all marine litter. By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline.
Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals; faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation and suffocation.
The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air.
In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer.
According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy. Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year, during 2018.
By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal.
The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation.
Fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly
UNEA-5 is an opportunity for Member States and Stakeholders to share best practices for sustainability and create momentum for governments to build back better through green and sustainable recovery plans, following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The overall theme for UNEA-5 is “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.
The theme calls for strengthened action to protect and restore nature and the nature-based solutions to achieve the SDGs in its three complementary dimensions (social, economic and environmental). UNEA-5 provides Member States and stakeholders with a platform for sharing and implementing successful approaches that contribute to the achievement of the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, including the goals related to the eradication of poverty and sustainable patterns of consumption and production. UNEA-5 will also provide an opportunity for Member States and Stakeholders to take ambitious steps towards building back better and greener by ensuring that investments in economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic contribute to sustainable development.
In light of the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Member States and Stakeholders decided that the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) should take place in a two-step approach.
The first session of UNEA-5 (UNEA-5 1)was held online on 22 – 23 February 2021 with a revised and streamlined agenda that focused on urgent and procedural decisions. UNEA-5.1 was prepared at the fifth meeting of the Open-Ended Meeting of the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which was organised online on 15-16 February 2021.
Substantive matters that require in-depth negotiations, including a Ministerial Declaration under the UNEA-5 theme, were deferred to a resumed in-person session of UNEA-5 which will take place on February 28 – March 2, 2022 (UNEA-5.2).
UNEA-5.2 will be followed by a Special Session of the UN Environment Assembly, to be held March 3-4, 2022, and will be devoted to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the creation of UNEP in 1972 (UNEP@50).
The President of the UN Environment Assembly, in close cooperation with UNEA Bureau and the Committee of Permanent Representatives and its Bureau will continue to work in an open and participatory manner to ensure a successful and impactful two-step UNEA-5.