The problems with plastic pollution are getting worse by the day. The estimated 8 million tons (yes, really) of plastic that ends up in the ocean every year is expected to double by 2025 and is estimated to rise to 60 tons per minute by 2050 if today's plastic use and lack of adequate waste management continues. These vast amounts of plastic have increasing impact on the environment and marine life. Scientists all over the world are finding more and more wildlife that has been killed after ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic. Ninety percent of sea birds have been found to have plastic in their bellies. Plastics decimate coral reefs, and damage human health as microplastics enter the food chain. They’ll create more and bigger dead zones where nothing can live, harm biodiversity, and change ecosystems. But many impacts are not even yet known, since researchers have only been studying ocean plastics for less than two decades.
It is strange that we treat the ocean as a huge garbage dump, while it regulates the climate and provides us with everything we need: food, oxygen, jobs, relaxation...Plastic pollution is a global crisis that needs a global solution. No individual country can make a significant enough impact to solve it before some of the impacts become irreversible. And even though a 2017 study showed that 86 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from Asian rivers, all countries are affected by its impact. The majority of garbage put into the ocean ends up in one of the five gyres, big swirling garbage patches in oceanic gyres. These garbage patches can become really big, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that contains about 80,000 tons of plastic. Larger plastic pieces break into ever smaller pieces until they become microplastics, ending up in everything from fish, shellfish and salt to bottled water.
“The time has come for a meaningful international agreement—one with clearly defined waste reduction targets and a solid foundation to provide all nations with the resources necessary for local reductions to be possible,” seven researchers argued in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2017. An agreement could contain several or one of the following:
- Impose caps on plastics production and trade bans, based on the Montreal Protocol.
- Countries setting a binding plastics goal and then developing national action plans, based on the climate treaty.
- A waste hierarchy, where plastics are first reduced, then reused, re-purposed and finally recycled, and creating a global fund to help pay for better waste management practices and infrastructure. By imposing fees and taxes on polluting plastics recycled plastic can become cheaper than virgin plastic.
In December 2017 almost 200 countries, including the U.S., China, and India, signed a United Nations resolution to eliminate ocean plastic pollution. A draft of the resolution included legally binding, specific pollution reduction targets, but the U.S. allegedly led the way on rejecting that draft (also China and India refused to sign the draft). The final agreement needs the creation of binding targets, but that seems unlikely to occur as long as Donald Trump is president of the U.S.
As mentioned, most plastics in the ocean come from Asian countries, but this doesn't mean we should not make an effort to reduce our impact. We can reduce our plastic dependency by refusing single-use plastics like plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, packaging and cups. I understand that in the grand scheme of things these efforts might seem insignificant, but by implementing them we can raise awareness and change behavior. Consumers can cast a vote with every purchase and engage governments, plastics producers and companies that use plastic packaging. Leading plastic manufacturers are planning to increase production by almost a third over the next five years. Instead, alternatives to non-degradable plastics must be developed, and the industries responsible for the majority of plastic waste must be targeted with specific industry agreements and producer liability arrangements, with requirements for handling, collection and reuse of waste and broken plastic equipment.