Concern Is Growing Over The Threat That Widespread Plastic Waste Poses To Marine Life
The eleventh edition of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Year Book looks at ten issues flagged as emerging by previous reports over the past decade, including plastic waste in the ocean. The UNEP Year Book 2014 gives an update on each issue and provides options for action. Other areas covered include the environmental impacts of excess nitrogen and marine aquaculture, air pollution’s deadly toll, and the potential of citizen science.
Valuing Plastic, a UNEP-supported report produced by the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) and Trucost, makes the business case for managing and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry. It finds that the overall natural capital cost of plastic use in the consumer goods sector each year is US$75 billion—financial impacts resulting from issues such as pollution of the marine environment or air pollution caused by incinerating plastic.
The report says that over 30 per cent of the natural capital costs of plastic are due to greenhouse gas emissions from raw material extraction and processing. However, it notes that marine pollution is the largest downstream cost, and that the figure of US$13 billion is likely a significant underestimate.
“Plastics have come to play a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of the way we use them cannot be ignored,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director. “These reports show that reducing, recycling and redesigning products that use plastics can bring multiple green economy benefits—from reducing economic damage to marine ecosystems and the tourism and fisheries industries, vital for many developing countries, to bringing savings and opportunities for innovation to companies while reducing reputational risks.”
“Our economies are still largely fossil-fuel based, with the environmental, economic and health costs hidden,” he added. “For example, in the polar regions, scientists have recently found tiny pieces of plastic trapped in sea ice. Transported by ocean currents across great distances, these contaminated particles eventually become a source of chemicals in our food. The key course of action is to prevent plastic debris from entering the environment in the first place, which translates into a single powerful objective: reduce, reuse, recycle.”
A large and unquantifiable amount of plastic waste enters the ocean from littering, poorly managed landfills, tourist activities and fisheries. Some of this material sinks to the ocean floor, while some floats and can travel over great distances on ocean currents—polluting shorelines and accumulating in massive mid-ocean gyres.
There have been many reliable reports of environmental damage due to plastic waste: mortality or illness when ingested by sea creatures such as turtles, entanglement of animals such as dolphins and whales, and damage to critical habitats such as coral reefs. There are also concerns about chemical contamination, invasive species spread by plastic fragments, and economic damage to the fishing and tourism industries in many countries—by, for example, fouling fishing equipment and polluting beaches.