Pollution

Look back at the decade: Plastics

Second decade of the new millenium: Anti-plastic campaign starts from the seas

 
By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 31 December 2019
Plastics. Illustration: Ritika Bohra

Our plastic addiction emerged as the latest human-induced unnatural to the nature to be fought in an emergency level. It is so entrenched that it could be considered as a geological indicator for the Anthropocene era.

In the decade of 2000-2009, we produced plastic waste that was more than the total of four decades before this. In the decade that just passed by, we produced 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every day. This is close to the total weight of all humans. Curbing plastic use is going to be the next big environmental challenge. We end our look-back series with this excerpt from June 2017:

Oceans of plastics 

The First Global Integrated Marine Assessment says the oceans have reached their carrying capacity. Though it does not provide information on which ocean is the cleanest or which country is the most polluting, it says urgent action on a global scale is needed to protect the oceans from the many pressures they face. But unfortunately, we know very little about oceans around us. Indian Ocean, which unlike any other oceans is landlocked on the northern side, is not studied much. One of the reasons it is so poorly understood could be the fact that countries that share the Indian Ocean are too poor to invest in research. So far, two international expeditions have been undertaken to explore it; the second expedition was sent off in 2015. But their objectives are largely limited to looking for new fishing grounds. 

But what we do know is that over 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year. A figure quoted widely suggests that by 2050, the number of plastic entities would be equal to the number of fish in the sea. At present as much as 80 per cent of all the litter in the oceans is made of plastic. More than 800 species have been affected by the debris. Plastic waste alone is estimated to kill up to 1 million birds, 100,000 sea mammals and countless fish each year. 

Microplastics, or small plastic particles from cosmetics, tyres, artificial grass, paints and clothes, are emerging as another threat to marine ecosystems. Ingested by phytoplanktons (microscopic plant-like organisms), microplastics pass through the food chain and find their way to our plates. 

It is estimated that some 51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times more than the stars in our galaxy—are out there in the ocean. But we are yet to assess their impact on human health. 

At the very first Ocean Conference convened by the UN at its headquarters in New York City, businesses also showcased their initiatives of going green. These include Adidas and Parley for the Oceans that are using ocean plastics to make sports shoes. The upper part of the shoe is made of yarns and the filaments from reclaimed ocean wastes. The green wave pattern across the shoe uppers is made from reclaimed and often illegal gillnets, while the rest of the upper portion is made from plastics collected from beaches on the Maldives. After collection and processing of the plastics, the shoes are brought to life using a 3D-printing technology. They plan to manufacture a million shoes by the end of 2017. 

However, nearly half of the 1,328 voluntary commitments were made by governments and government bodies in the UN conference. Norway committed to reduce the amount of microplastics ending up in the ocean. Indonesia committed to reduce 70 per cent of its plastic debris by 2025, Germany provided money for mangrove protection, whereas China committed to comprehensively control marine environmental pollution, gradually improve water quality in offshore areas and eliminate illegal sewage outlets. Palau, an island country in the western Pacific Ocean, announced the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act at the conference. The Act aims to protect marine resources, particularly tuna stocks, of ocean. The Cook Islands, another island country in the South Pacific Ocean, dedicated its entire Exclusive Economic Zone Marae Moana, spanning 1.9 million sq km, for integrated management. 

The five-day conference was unlike any other at the UN. To ensure that action is taken quickly, the organisers have focused on voluntary commitments. The Call of Action is also not mandatory. Some experts were happy with this non-binding arrangement, saying the time taken over the negotiations is not worth the outcome. Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of Global Marine and Polar Programme at iucn, said that negotiations generally lead to mediocre agreements as countries do not like to be told what to do. For example, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which was ratified in 1994 has still not been signed by countries like the US. International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments took 10 years to be negotiated upon and just got ratified. During this time, invasive species continued to be dispersed across the world. These were the 20 years when action would have helped, said Lundin. 

Also in the decade 

2014>>

This year, 311 million tonnes of plastic were produced around the world, and in the same year, scientists had devised a mathematical model to determine the countries contributing to the garbage patch in oceans.

2019>>

The Coca-Cola Co has emerged as the No 1 global plastic polluter for the second consecutive year, according to a report on the top 10 plastic polluting companies in the world. The beverages brand was followed by Nestlé SA and PepsiCo In.

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