Our oceans, river systems, marine animals, and health are being threatened by a pollutant that’s all around us, yet sometimes invisible to the eye: plastics. Whether it’s an empty bag of chips floating in a nearby stream or microplastics ingested by both humans and marine animals, plastics have become a ubiquitous and destructive commodity. As our plastics production and consumption continues to increase, the world is now faced with the growing question of what to do with our plastics problem.
Scientists became aware of the damage of plastics—particularly marine plastics—in the 1950s. While our understanding of plastics’ impact has expanded since then, there have been few policy measures implemented to deal with the issue. But this year could change that.
In addition to dedicating Earth Day to ending plastic pollution, the environmental community is also pressuring global and policy leaders to seriously address the plastics crisis. After agreeing in December to spearhead the fight against marine plastic pollution, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) will be organizing its first-ever meeting to discuss marine litter and microplastics at a global level.
An expert group tasked with examining options for combating marine plastic litter and microplastics will meet for the first time next month, providing a policy window that could finally address the global issue of marine plastics pollution. But, as a joint statement written by the Women’s Major Group, the Worker’s Major Group, the NGO Major Group, and other organizations notes, true solutions need to be global undertakings that not only remove existing plastic pollution from our environment, but also significantly reduce plastic production and consumption. As such, we call on the expert group to consider a legally binding global framework to manage the full lifecycle of plastics.
Up to 12 million metric tons of plastic leak into the oceans each year, and this rate could double by 2050 if our waste management systems aren’t improved. On top of that, more than half of microplastics remain on land, eventually flowing into land and freshwater ecosystems. Plastics also harm the health of both marine animals and humans, exposing us to toxic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, among other health hazards.
Despite this, annual plastic production reached about 311 million tons in 2014 and continues to rise rapidly due to new developments in cheap shale gas. Given these statistics, it’s not enough to simply expand recycling. There needs to be a global effort to cut back on our production and consumption of plastics altogether.
Right now, our waste management systems are not equipped to solve the plastics problem alone. Currently, there are no waste management mechanisms in place that could outcompete the overproduction of plastic or even clean up the amount of plastic that goes into the environment. As a matter of fact, most plastic doesn’t even end up at these waste management systems in the first place.
Only nine percent of all plastic ever discarded since 1950 has been recycled, leaving the rest to get stuck in our environment for millennia. One of the major contributors to plastic pollution is packaging, especially those designed for single use. Only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally. Other existing solutions like incineration, “waste-to-energy,” and “plastic-to-fuel” methods only deal with plastic at the end of their lifecycle. Our management systems are not equipped to solve the environmental impact of ever-expanding production of plastic, an equally problematic aspect of plastic’s lifecycle.
Almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels, accounting for 20 percent of total oil consumption and 15 percent of the global annual carbon budget by 2050. And plastics expend carbon from the time they’re made to when they’re thrown away, from extraction, pipeline and refinery operations, production and conversion, to end-of-life treatment like incineration.
Because of this, CIEL and our partners are pushing for a holistic approach to solving plastics—one that accounts for waste management, reverses the trend of increasing plastics in the environment, and reduces toxic exposure to humans from plastics. Tackling marine litter isn’t enough. It’s time to take true action to #EndPlasticPollution.
Written by By Madeleine Simon, Communications Intern of CIEL. Blog originally appeared at http://www.ciel.org/earth-day-end-plastic-pollution/