The plastic in our oceans has changed our planet forever, according to new research.
Scientists say it has now reached a tipping point, causing effects that we cannot undo.
Recycling programs cannot stop the tide and limiting production and banning waste exports is your last chance, say the authors of the news study.
Measures that drastically reduce emissions are “the rational political answer,” says an international team.
First author Professor Matthew MacLeod from Stockholm University said: “Plastic is deeply anchored in our society and gets into the environment everywhere – even in countries with good waste disposal infrastructure.”
The study in the journal Science found that despite better public awareness, the threat of environmental pollution is growing.
Plastic can be found all over the world – from deserts and mountain peaks to deep oceans and arctic snow.
As of 2016, estimates of global emissions to the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans were between nine and 23 million tons per year. The same is dumped on land again.
The quantities are expected to almost double by 2025 if business-as-usual scenarios apply.
Co-author Mine Tekman, a doctoral student at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, said it was also a “political and economic” issue.
Current solutions such as recycling and cleaning technologies are not enough – and we have to tackle the problem at the root.
She said, “The world is promoting technological solutions for recycling and removing plastic from the environment.
“As consumers, we believe that if we properly separate our plastic waste, everything will magically be recycled.
“Technically, plastic recycling has many limitations, and countries with good infrastructure export their plastic waste to countries with poorer facilities.
“To reduce emissions, drastic measures are required, such as limiting the production of virgin plastic to add value to recycled plastic and banning the export of plastic waste unless it goes to a better recycling country. “
Plastic builds up when the amount exceeds the amount removed by cleaning initiatives and natural outdoor degradation by sunlight, air, and moisture.
Co-author Prof. Hans Peter Arp of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim said: “Plastic weathering occurs due to many different processes and we have come a long way to understand them.
“But weathering is constantly changing the properties of the plastic pollution, which opens new doors for further questions.
“Degradation is very slow and cannot effectively stop accumulation, so exposure to weathered plastic will only increase.”
He describes plastic as a “poorly reversible pollutant”, both because of its continuous emissions and because of its environmental resistance.
Untouched places – like the pristine polar regions – are most at risk.
Co-author Prof. Annika Jahnke from RWTH Aachen University explains: “In remote surroundings, plastic waste cannot be removed by cleaning up.
“The weathering of large plastic objects inevitably leads to the formation of large numbers of micro- and nanoplastic particles, as well as the washout of intentionally added chemicals and other chemicals that break the plastic-polymer backbone.
On the subject of matching items
On the subject of matching items
“So plastic in the environment is a constantly moving target with increasing complexity and mobility. Where it accumulates and what effects it can have are difficult or even impossible to predict. “
In addition to the harm from animal entanglement and toxic effects, there are a number of potential indirect environmental impacts.
These include promoting climate change by disrupting the global carbon pump and the loss of biodiversity in the ocean, where plastic acts as an added stress factor for overfishing.
Others include ongoing habitat destruction from changes in water temperatures, a reduction in nutrients, and increased chemical pollution.
The researchers hope that the merging of all findings will generate “overwhelming motivation” for tailor-made measures.
Prof. MacLeod added: “At the moment we are polluting the environment with increasing amounts of poorly reversible plastic pollution.
“So far we don’t see widespread evidence of bad effects, but if plastic weathering has a really bad effect, we probably won’t be able to reverse it.
We call for sustainable changes that ensure that littering and those responsible are dealt with much more seriously.
Together with our community platform InYourArea and the campaign group Clean Up Britain, we are calling for the fine to be increased to £ 1,000 for anyone caught littering and for local authorities to enforce the law on what is already a criminal offense.
Sign our petition here and find out more about the campaign here.
“The cost of ignoring the build-up of persistent plastic pollution in the environment could be enormous.
“It makes sense to act as soon as possible to reduce plastic emissions into the environment.”
Last year, a UK study published in the same journal found that 1.3 billion tons of plastic will be destined for our environment – both on land and in the sea – by 2040.
The result from the University of Leeds was based on a global model of the extent of the plastic problem over the next two decades.
Another recent study from the University of Plymouth found that a staggering 700 different species are threatened by plastic pollution – many of which are currently endangered.
Earlier this year, Greenpeace called on the UK government to ban the export of plastic waste to all countries, invest in a domestic recycling industry and set a binding target for plastic reduction.
It also showed plastic waste from seven major UK supermarkets being incinerated and dumped in Turkey instead of being recycled. The ministers are to ban all plastic exports by 2025.