Why plastics pollution needs to be checked now

Traces of microplastics have been found in breast milk, tap water and the bloodstream of humans.
Picture credits: ANI
Picture credits: ANI

Plastic pollution has emerged as a major threat to human and natural ecosystems. According to a United Nations report, the world is producing around 430 million tonnes of plastics every year of which two-thirds are for short-term use. The production and consumption of plastic products have grown exponentially since the 1950s. A 2022 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), titled ‘Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060’, states that if the present trends persist global plastic production will triple and exceed 1 billion tonnes by the year 2060.

About 350 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated every year of which less than 10 percent is recycled, about 15 percent is incinerated while the remaining is dumped in landfills or littered on land, rivers, lakes, and the oceans. This has led to adverse economic, social, environmental and health impacts. Plastics can take up to 500 years or more to decompose and emit harmful pollutants that degrade the environment and are harmful to humans, and animals including livestock, aquatic, and marine life. Plastic waste dumped in soils affect soil quality, soil biodiversity, and groundwater aquifers. Cases of wild animals, birds and cattle dying due to the ingestion of microplastics are not uncommon. A news report in 2017 stated that about a thousand cows die every year in Lucknow alone from ingesting plastic and other waste.

Traces of microplastics have been found in breast milk, tap water and the bloodstream of humans. A study conducted in 2017 found that 83 percent of tap water samples from around the world contained plastic pollutants. The study found the contamination rate of tap water with microplastics to be the highest (94 percent) in the US, followed by Lebanon and India.

According to the study, people may be ingesting 3,000-4,000 microparticles of plastics through their tap water every year. A study conducted by Environment International in 2022 found the presence of microplastics in 80 percent of the blood test samples of the surveyed population.

Renowned environmentalist David Attenborough suggests that between 400,000 and a million people die every year due to plastic pollution especially in developing countries due to poor management of plastic and other waste.

It is estimated that 11 million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans every year and this is projected to triple in the next two decades. Plastic waste, apart from other debris such as abandoned fishing nets and gear caused by poorly regulated commercial fisheries, have been found in all oceans and at all depths. Over the period 1970 to 2019, an estimated 30 million tonnes of plastic waste have accumulated in the oceans while over 100 million tonnes have accumulated in rivers and lakes. Plastics account for 85 percent of marine litter and have aggravated marine pollution and affected marine species and coastal activities.

Experts suggest that around 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles die every year due to marine plastic pollution. Every year about a million sea birds die due to ingestion of microplastics or getting entangled in plastic debris. Some studies even suggest that by the year 2050, we may find more plastics in the seas than fish. 

According to a 2023 report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on ‘Turning off the tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy’, the annual social and environmental costs of plastic pollution are estimated to range $300-600 billion a year, with some suggesting it to be still higher at around $1.5 trillion a year.

Plastic pollution will also contribute to global warming. The UNEP report states that under a business-as-usual scenario, plastics will contribute about 19 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. The adverse costs and impacts of plastic pollution will fall disproportionately on the poor.

To tackle the crisis, the UNEP report has proposed a systematic approach of relying on the well-known 3R strategy—reuse, recycle and reorient—plus diversify and tackle the legacy of such pollution. The report states that these measures could lead to an 80 percent reduction in plastic pollution and a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040.

It will create new opportunities in the informal sector as well as encourage innovation. Apart from reducing the annual greenhouse gas emissions by 0.5 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent, it could lead to a $1.3 trillion in savings in direct public and private costs between 2021 and 2040, and avoid $3.3 trillion of environment and social costs due to plastic pollution.

The OECD report suggests a host of measures to tackle the adverse environmental impacts of plastic use and encourage a circular economy. These include raising taxes on plastics and plastic packaging; giving incentives to reuse and repair plastic items; mandating targets for recycled content in new plastic products; providing extended producer responsibility schemes; improving waste management infrastructure and hiking litter collection rates.

Although most countries in the world, including India, have banned the manufacture and use of single-use plastics, this addresses only a fraction of the problem. The fifth UN Environment Assembly, which met in Nairobi in March 2022, resolved to enact a legally binding global plastics treaty by 2024 to tackle the crisis—this was endorsed by all the 193 member countries. This will, hopefully, move us on the path to a zero-pollution world sought to be achieved by 2050.

BY KN NINAN, Lead Author, Global Environment Outlook-7, UNEP


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