Plastic provides many benefits to society and is used for a wide variety of applications. But it comes at a cost to the marine environment and human health. To initiate change, we need to understand the magnitude of the problem and ways to address plastic pollution.
Plastic is cheap, lightweight, strong and malleable which makes it a very useful material for a wide variety of applications, including packaging, building and construction, household and sports equipment, vehicles, electronics and agriculture. Since the beginning of plastic production in the1950s we have produced 8300 million tons of plastic but only 9% of the world’s plastic has been recycled. The rest has been discarded in landfills or the environment. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic waste is dumped into the world’s oceans every minute. If we carry on as usual, the equivalent of two garbage trucks of plastic each minute will be released into our oceans by 2030 and four trucks each minute by 2050.
But this has a cost. In 2014, the environmental damage from plastic use in consumer goods was estimated to be at least of US $13 billion per year. In 2016, these costs were estimated at US $40 billion/year. It is a global economic and health issue that contributes to climate change and threatens ocean health, food safety and quality, human health, and coastal tourism. Plastic acts like a magnet, attracting toxic substances it encounters in the water and accumulating these as it passes through the food chain to top predator species – including the fish we eat. European molluscs' eaters consume up to 11,000 microplastics pieces per year.
Plastics use different pathways to reach our oceans but the main one is rivers. Ninety per cent of all plastic found in the world’s oceans is carried there by just ten rivers - all of them in India, Africa and China. An IUCN global study on the sources of microplastics revealed that primary microplastics are a significant source of plastics in the oceans (15-30%). The biggest contributors (almost two-thirds) are abrasion of synthetic textiles and tyres. These visible and invisible plastics are released at different life cycle stages. If reducing mismanaged plastic waste remains a global priority, for many regions and sectors, solutions need to be found to also reduce primary microplastics releases. So depending on the region, priority setting is very different.
So how to turn off the plastic tap? The world must shift its sail and adjust its course. Decisive and urgent actions are required now. IUCN is actively engaged in the fight against plastic pollution, working on many fronts and regions. It recently launched a three-year initiative – MARPLASTICCs – to end plastic pollution in Eastern and Southern Africa and Asia. This initiative aims to equip governments, industries and communities in five countries – South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Thailand and Viet Nam – with knowledge, policy options and plans of action to control and reduce plastic pollution. The initiative is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).