Plastic pollution in aquatic systems may triple by 2040: UNEP

Around 23-37 million tonnes of waste could end up in the ocean a year by 2040, up from 9-14 million tonnes a year in 2016 

By Susan Chacko
Published: Friday 22 October 2021

The microbial community on plastic debris — the plastisphere — now covers the multiple biomes on Earth. From the deepest parts of the ocean to the most remote oceanic islands, plastics and microplastics are all-pervasive.

A new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has rung alarm bells: The amount of plastics in the oceans has been estimated to be around 75-199 million tonnes at present. Without meaningful action, emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are projected to nearly triple by 2040.

It could more than double by 2030, according to the assessment.

The report talks about the extreme pressures being exerted on the planet due to plastic pollution and the need for urgent action to offset it.

The report flagged that under a business-as-usual scenario and in the absence of necessary interventions, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple from 9-14 million tonnes a year in 2016 to 23-37 million tonnes a year by 2040.

Of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated so far, an estimated 10 per cent was recycled, 14 per cent incinerated and the remaining 76 per cent went into landfills, dumps and littered in the natural environment.

The estimated annual loss in the value of plastic packaging waste during sorting and processing alone is $80-120 billion.

Plastics labelled as biodegradable may take hundreds of years to degrade in the oceans; litter poses similar risks to individuals, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

The main sources of marine litter and plastic pollution are land-based. Approximately 7,000 million of the estimated 9,200 million tonnes of cumulative plastic production between 1950 and 2017 became plastic waste.

At least three-quarters of this were discarded and placed in landfills, became part of mismanaged waste streams or was dumped and abandoned in the environment, including in the sea.

The mismanagement of waste from African and Asian watersheds may result in the release of millions of tonnes of litter and plastic waste into the world’s major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and eventually into the oceans, according to a 2019 Nature report.

Plastic can also alter global carbon cycling through its effect on plankton and primary production in marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems. Marine ecosystems — especially mangroves, seagrasses, corals and salt marshes — play a major role in sequestering carbon.

The more damage we do to oceans and coastal areas, the harder it is for these ecosystems to both offset and remains resilient to climate change.

The greenhouse gas emissions from plastics in 2015 were 1.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e). This is projected to increase to approximately 6.5 GtCO2e by 2050, or 15 per cent of the global carbon budget, the report said.

Inger Andersen, executive director, UNEP, said:

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. A major concern is the fate of breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, many of which are known to be toxic and hazardous to both human and wildlife health as well as ecosystems.

The UNEP report titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution will inform discussions at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in 2022, where countries will come together and create momentum for governments to build back better through green and sustainable recovery plans.

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