Plastic waste is a planetary crisis

It is found on the remote shores of the Arctic and the deepest parts of the ocean. It is also found inside our bodies, from the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Every year, 14 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean, harming nature, posing a threat to food security, human health, tourism and worsening climate change.

The United Nations Environment Assembly meets in Nairobi from 28 February to 2 March to tackle plastic pollution in line with the position adopted by the African continent. Scientists say a strong, legally binding treaty must be based on hard scientific evidence or “it won’t be enough to address the planetary crisis”.

This is detailed in the Scientists’ Declaration, which the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency has launched. It was written by a team of international experts, who specialise in toxicology, chemistry, environmental biology, waste management and political ecology, and has been backed by 435 scientific experts, including 197 indigenous peoples, and 37 research institutions. The declaration has now been formally endorsed by the Science and Technology Major Group at the United Nations. 

It is in response to the UN Environment Programme (Unep) global assessment on plastic pollution, which was published in October. The declaration’s authors argue that current practices of production, design, use and disposal of plastics have severe negative consequences for ecosystem health, biodiversity, human health including fertility and cancers, climate, sustainable livelihoods, cultural diversity and human rights worldwide.

Approaches limited to pollution by marine litter do not adequately reflect the findings of Unep’s scientific advisory committee for marine litter and microplastics, which concluded that a full lifecycle approach is needed, they said. This principally focuses on prevention, reduction and redesigning problematic plastics out of the global economy.

They are calling on political leaders to ensure action is taken to cap and phase down plastic production; standardise and reduce the diversity of plastics, plastic products and delivery systems; harmonise monitoring and reporting; and ensure compliance and enforcement to prevent and mitigate further harm.

Virgin plastic production — more than 99% of which has been derived from fossil fuels — has risen from two million tonnes a year in 1950 to 367 million tonnes in 2020 and is projected to exceed one billion tonnes a year by 2050. “Plastics production is a major driver of climate change,” the authors wrote.

Plastic leakage into the environment has grown sharply and is projected to nearly triple from 2016 to 2040. About seven billion of the estimated 9.2 billion tonnes of the plastics produced between 1950 and 2017 is now waste, three-quarters of which is either in landfills or accumulating in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Plastic pollution cost between $6-billion and $19-billion globally in 2018, because of the harm to tourism, fisheries and aquaculture — but this “grossly underestimates” the true costs because it does not account for lost future income through habitat degradation and ecological effects contributing to biodiversity loss.

“Nor does it include the substantial direct and indirect costs related to human health, cultural and societal wellbeing and further economic, social and environmental impacts that are difficult to quantify.”

The pollution is transboundary and transgenerational, the experts say. “The impacts of plastics are akin to climate change, biodiversity loss, ozone layer depletion and the effects of persistent organic pollutants, all of which have associated multilateral environmental agreements in place. 

“Irreversible, compounding and planetary-scale exposure of our environment, ecosystems and organisms, including humans, to plastics and associated toxic monomers, oligomers, additives, catalysts, polymerisation aids and non-intentionally added substances is occurring.”

Although knowledge gaps remain, there is “clear and unequivocal evidence” that the pollution caused by plastics throughout their lifecycles is negatively affecting all levels of biological organisation, from the genetic and epigenetic, cellular and subcellular through to organismal, population and ecosystem levels, contributing to biodiversity loss and adding to climate change. 

“We recognise the efforts taken by governments and organisations around the world to combat the plastics crisis but emphasise that no one country can tackle this deeply systemic challenge alone,” the experts say, describing how existing commitments will result in only a 7% reduction of plastic waste emissions.

Plastic recycling alone is not a solution to a problem of this magnitude because only a small portion and very few types of monomaterial plastics are currently recyclable. Manufacturing with recycled materials requires the use of virgin plastics; and the issue of toxic residues in recycled plastics is not being addressed. 

“Recycling carries its own environmental burden and recycling campaigns have often been used to increase rather than decrease plastic product consumption.”

A largely unregulated plastics industry and national and international policy frameworks that support and subsidise polluting industries “present a grave threat to human and ecosystem health, human rights and climate stability”, according to the report.

Existing relevant multilateral environmental agreements are fragmented and insufficient. “As with the climate and biodiversity emergencies, connecting the actions of governments, businesses and citizens into effective global cooperation grounded in scientific consensus is critically important.

“A new legally binding global treaty is the appropriate response towards decisively tackling one of the most pressing human health, human rights, climate and man-made environmental crises of our time.”

Such a treaty should strive to prevent and reduce the harm caused by current practices of plastic production, design, use and disposal, including pollution in the environment by promoting a non-toxic circular economy and addressing the full lifecycle of plastics.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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