Why experts believe that the plastic in our oceans could have changed the planet forever
New research has shown that the plastic in our oceans could have changed the planet forever. (Getty Images)
We all know that plastic = bad. But do we fully realize how bad? The plastic in our oceans could have changed the planet forever, new research suggests.
According to a new study, the impact of plastic on the environment has now reached a tipping point that is creating effects that we can no longer reverse.
With recycling programs unable to stop the tide, scientists say limiting production and banning waste exports are our last chance to improve the plastic situation.
The study, published in the journal Science, found that the threat of environmental pollution is worsening despite better public awareness.
“Plastic is deeply rooted in our society and finds its way into the environment everywhere – even in countries with a good waste disposal infrastructure,” explains first author Professor Matthew MacLeod from Stockholm University.
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As of 2016, estimates of global emissions to the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans ranged from nine to 23 million tons per year, with the same amount also being landfilled.
However, the quantities are expected to almost double by 2025 if typical scenarios continue to apply.
Experts say plastic pollution has reached a tipping point – triggering effects that we cannot reverse. (Getty Images)
The authors say that plastic pollution is not only an environmental problem, but also a “political and economic” problem and since the solutions currently offered, such as recycling and cleaning technologies, are insufficient, we need to get to the root of the problem.
“The world is promoting technological solutions for recycling and removing plastic from the environment,” explains co-author Mine Tekman, a doctoral student at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven.
“As consumers, we believe that if we properly separate our plastic waste, everything will magically be recycled.
“But technologically, plastic recycling has many limitations, and countries with good infrastructure export their plastic waste to countries with poorer facilities.
The story goes on
“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 in the environment when the amounts emitted exceed amounts that are removed by cleaning initiatives and natural environmental processes, which occurs through a multi-step process known as weathering.
“Plastic weathering occurs due to many different processes, and we have understood it for a long time,” explains co-author Prof. Hans Peter Arp from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
“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.”
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He describes plastic as a “poorly reversible pollutant”, both because of its continuous emissions and because of its environmental resistance.
And remote, previously untouched areas like the polar regions are most at risk.
“In remote surroundings, plastic waste cannot be removed by cleaning up,” explains study co-author Prof. Annika Jahnke from RWTH Aachen University.
“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.
“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. “
The authors believe that the plastic threat can have global effects that cannot be reversed, and hope that the summary of all results will provide “compelling motivation” for specific measures to reduce emissions.
“At the moment we are polluting the environment with increasing amounts of poorly reversible plastic pollution,” adds Prof. MacLeod.
“So far we haven’t seen the widespread evidence of consequences, but if plastic weathering has a really bad effect, we probably won’t be able to reverse it.
“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.”
Observe: Passing divers rescue sea turtles that are caught in a floating pile of plastic waste.
Last year, a UK study published in the same journal found that 1.3 billion tons of plastic will be destined for the 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 already endangered.
Earlier this year, Greenpeace called on the UK government to ban the export of plastic waste to all countries by 2025, 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 study follows another study last month that found that half of the plastic waste polluting the world’s oceans comes from takeaway food and beverage packaging.
Scientists from the University of Cádiz found that single-use bags, plastic bottles, food containers and food packaging are the four most common items that pollute the seas and accumulate on coastlines and near-shore waters.
Only 10 plastic products, including plastic lids and fishing gear, accounted for three-quarters of the waste as they are widely used and slowly degrade.
The results of the study led scientists to call for some common disposable items to be banned and for the manufacturers behind the items to be more responsible.
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Plastic pollution poses a major threat to the environment. (Getty Images)
It came after warnings that plastic contamination could soon be “catastrophic” to human health.
Experts say this could mean the end of mankind if we don’t team up on plastic pollution.
Seawater samples collected during a 45,000 mile trip around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race have found traces of microplastics almost everywhere, even in the most remote waters of the Southern Ocean.
It was previously known that humans could use up to 52,000 microplastic particles per year.
Research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that microplastics enter the human body in the air, soil, rivers, and oceans.
The report, which was compiled using data from a number of studies, estimates that humans consume between 39,000 and 52,000 particles each year.
Now wonder experts say that if we don’t pull ourselves together on plastic pollution, it could mean not only the end of endangered species, but ultimately the end of humanity as well.
Additional reporting by SWNS.