One hundred years ago, a new material was revolutionizing the design industry: plastic. The new material, an emblem of contemporary times, entered all domains of human life, from manufactories to the arts. Additionally, it entered the oceans, which is another emblem.
During the 1980s, an unexpected destination of all untreated plastic waste was discovered: 4 to 5 gigantic plastic gyres were actually floating permanently – because of their low density – on the surface of the oceans. One of the largest plastic patches, called the “Great Pacific garbage patch”, now stretches out on an area of about 1.6 million km² – Mongolia’s size roughly – a figure that is four to sixteen times higher than previous estimates. A research team from The Netherlands, UK, and USA recently published a paper where they estimate the patch weighing between 45,000 and 129,000 tons of plastic and containing about 46% of fishing nets. Microplastics only account for 8% of total mass but represent 94% of the 1.8 trillion pieces that are estimated to be floating in the area. The preponderance of microplastics is the reason patches are not visible from satellites. Similar patches are present in the different other oceans: according to Eriksen et al. (2014), there is a minimum of 5.25 trillion particles of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons, although this figure seems underestimated.
Consequences are devastating for marine ecosystems: everyone has seen images of seals strangled by fishing nets, disfigured turtles or dead marine birds with their stomachs full of plastic pieces; but the most harmful effect could be invisible and related to all toxic compounds that slowly enter the trophic chain… and eventually human bodies. Defects from plastic include cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, hormonal disruption and childhood developmental issues. Health costs from this pollution could become very high, in addition to the annual $13 billion of environmental costs it already generates (UNEP, 2014). According to the UNEP, the overall natural capital annual cost of plastic use in the consumer goods sector would reach $75 billion.
Ocean plastic patches spatial modeling (from the University of Hawaii)
Global plastic production has reached 320 million tons in 2016, a 4%-growth compared to 2015. More plastic has been produced in the last decade than ever before. About 50% is produced in Asia (29% in China), 19% in Europe and 18% within the NAFTA. (It should be noted that, as often, the geographical distribution of production varies significantly from the consumption distribution.) A limited portion is recycled (30% in Europe, but around 9% globally), but the vast majority is discarded into landfill or littered into the environment – including oceans. In coastal regions (gathering 2 billion people), it is estimated that for every 100 million tons of plastic waste that are produced yearly, 32 million tons are mismanaged. In a 2015 paper, US and Australian researchers estimated that about 8 million tons went into the ocean in one year. By 2025, with conservative hypotheses and growing population, this figure could amount to 17.5 million tons. The same researchers provided an estimate of the top 20 pollution contributors:
How could the situation evolve? Research shows that, regarding the Great Pacific garbage patch, plastic pollution is increasing exponentially. A variety of ‘ocean cleaning’ initiatives have been launched in recent years, however, even without considering blue-sky projects, there is little likelihood they could reverse the current trend. No chance to empty a flooded room with a straw – even if it’s a very innovative one – while rain is still pouring. The key is upstream: at the waste level. In some places, consciousness is spreading: there are regions or countries which have banned some plastic use such as plastic bags (like in Kenya and Rwanda). An example of imposed taxes is Norway, where plastic bottle producers are subject to a ‘no recycling’ tax while bottle buyers must pay a deposit.
The EU on its side aims at making all plastic packaging recycle or reusable by 2030, with a reduction of single-use plastics and a restriction on the use of microplastics. During the last G7 summit in Canada, five of the G7 nations (without U.S. and Japan) agreed to an ocean plastic charter. The last example is India, which plans a ban on single-use plastics by 2022. These countries are not the first contributors, however (EU collectively would appear at the 18th rank in the list above). And China? A few months ago, the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials decided to ban plastic waste imports, which will force other countries to deal with their own waste. Regarding domestic plastic waste production, the National Development and Reform Commission is “looking at further measures”. The country hasn’t yet signed up for the UNEP “Clean Seas” campaign which came up from last December’s UNEP Assembly.
Globally, actions remain marginal, and clearly not up to the task. Increasing health and environmental damages will probably lead involved countries to act at some point. Meanwhile, plastic particles will continue to disseminate in biological cycles, replacing fish and other forms of ocean life.
Hadrien Lantremange, Natural Capital Analyst – Sources: Beyond Ratings, PLOS One, Science, Scientific Reports