Friday, July 24, 2020

Our Plastic World

Plastic waste flowing into the oceans is expected to nearly triple in volume in the next 20 years, while efforts to stem the tide have so far made barely a dent in the tsunami of waste, research shows. 

An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic is destined for our environment - both land and water - by 2040, unless worldwide action is taken. If current trends continue, the amount of plastic waste polluting the oceans will grow to 29m tonnes a year by 2040, the equivalent of 50kg for every metre of coastline in the world.

Dr Ian Kane, from the University of Manchester, who was part of a team that calculated the amount of micro-plastic in the seabed, described the picture the researchers had painted as "horrifying".

 Simon Reddy, international environment director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which led the research. “All the initiatives to date make very little difference. There is no silver bullet, there is no solution that can simply be applied – lots of policies are wanted. You need innovation and systems change.” Reddy called on governments and investors to curb the planned expansion of plastic production. “Without this, the supply of large quantities of cheap virgin plastic to the market may undermine reduction and substitution efforts and threaten the economic viability of recycling, while making it even harder to close the collection gap between waste produced and waste collected for disposal.”

Dr Costas Velis from the University of Leeds said the number was "staggering" but that we had "the technology and the opportunity to stem the tide".

More stringent measures could produce a drastic reduction in waste, according to the researchers. These include improving waste collection, particularly in the developing world, and recycling more waste, as well as investing in alternative materials and better product design to reduce the amount of plastic used.  An estimated 2 billion people in the Global South have no access to proper waste management. 

"They have to just get rid of all their rubbish, so they have no choice but to burn or dump it," said Dr Velis.

The 11 million waste pickers - people who collect and sell reusable materials in low-income countries  often lack basic employment rights and safe working conditions.  Although waste pickers and other workers in informal waste management systems are responsible for about 60% of global plastic recycling, “their contribution to preventing ocean plastic pollution has largely gone unrecognised and underpaid”, said Reddy.

Dr Velis said: "Waste pickers are the unsung heroes of recycling - without whom the mass of plastic entering the aquatic environment would be considerably greater." He added that policies to support them and make their work safer were a vital part of solving this problem.

Alice Horton, a scientist at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre, who was not involved in the research, said reducing plastic waste was cost-effective. “Even the toughest management approaches proposed [in the paper] will still lead to a cumulative increase in plastic pollution with in the environment,”

Prof Jamie Woodward, from the University of Manchester, pointed out "There are parallels with the climate change problem in that business as usual will be disastrous. We need to radically change our behaviour."

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