Plastic Pollution, how can we end it ?
Plastic pollution is a widespread, long-lasting and rapidly growing problem. Larger ‘macroplastics’ – like bottles and fishing nets – are unsightly and cause visible harm to wildlife. Smaller microplastics are even more dangerous because they absorb and concentrate the toxins around them and carry them into food chains. The potential impact on whole ecosystems, wildlife and human health and the Earth system as a whole means it is right to call this a plastic pollution crisis.
How plastic pollution threatens wildlife, human health and the global environment
Twelve million tonnes of plastic pollution pour into the oceans every year , with still more spread over land, buried in soil or lying in lakes and rivers. It has been found at the highest mountains and in the deepest ocean trenches, in fields and parks, tap water, everyday food and the very air we breathe.
Vast quantities of ‘microplastics’ come from the wear and tear of vehicle tyres, synthetic clothes and paints, as well as when ‘macroplastics’ like bottles and fishing nets breakdown.
These affect wildlife
Wildlife is affected by
• Ingestion – animals mistake plastic for food. Recent research found that seven turtle species, 164 seabird species and 47 whale species have eaten plastic. This can cause starvation by damaging the animal’s digestive systems and preventing the absorption of nutritious food.
• Entanglement – fishing nets and other loose plastic cause horrific injuries and slow, painful deaths to wildlife. 100% of marine turtles, 67% of seals, 31% of whales and 25% of seabird species have been entangled or succumb to starvation, drowning or predators because they can no longer evade them.
• Toxicological effects – plastics often contain toxic chemicals added to lend useful features such as flexibility. Plastic debris, especially smaller micro- and nanoplastics, collect and concentrate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to become up to a million times more toxic than surrounding seawater. These toxic chemicals can harm marine life and pass up food chains with risk to apex predators including humans.
• Habitat impacts – plastic debris creates a floating habitat for bacterial colonisation and rafting insects. This aids the movement of invasive species. Among other impacts these can also affect the temperature and oxygen concentration of marine sediments which, for example, can alter turtle hatchling gender. They increase disease in coral and sea grass, and block light necessary for photosynthesis in these organisms
Plastic pollution is so widespread and persistent that its effects can scale up to impact at a global level with even more serious consequences . For example, tiny sea creatures called plankton eat microplastics instead of their usual food. This risks the basic food source that larger animals like whales depend on. Because the plastic makes their faeces float instead of fall towards the seafloor, it also interferes with nutrient flow and the global carbon cycle
The social cost of our addiction to plastic
The enormous increase in the production of needless plastic has left local authorities struggling to process this low value and hard-to-recycle material. For decades the UK has relied on poorly regulated overseas markets as dumps for poorly sorted UK waste. This has continued despite warnings then and now about the appalling impacts of this toxic waste on people and the environment. With China and other export markets now refusing to take poorly sorted UK recycling there is a growing risk of rubbish piling up in ports and a growth in waste crime across the country. The head of the Environment Agency has already warned that waste crime is the ‘new narcotics’
How can we lead the world out of the plastic pollution crisis
There is no way that recycling can keep up with the growth of plastic production. Nor is highly polluting and deeply unpopular incineration or ‘energy-from-waste’ an acceptable solution. Instead the focus must be on reduction of the use of plastic. As well as ending the plastic pollution crisis, this would save huge amounts of effort and money for householders and councils struggling to deal with so much waste. It could also set the course for significant carbon emissions reductions.
We need a plastic pollution action plan, backed up by legislation
We need legislation that maps the full breadth of sources of plastic pollution and their environmental and social impact, and sets to work on a plan to bring the crisis under control. Immediate bans and phase-outs are appropriate for some uses of plastic. Others require more time to innovate and make social and economic adjustments. The impacts on the environment, the economy and people, including and especially marginalised groups such as those living with disabilities, must be considered and accounted for.