Plastic pollution in the ocean
 

Ocean Insights

The Plastic Predicament: Where Do We Stand and What Can We Do?

Sian Sutherland headshot
An Op-Ed By SeaLegacy Ocean Ambassador, Sian Sutherland, Co-Founder, A Plastic Planet & Plastic Health Council

Sian Sutherland lends her expertise and tireless effort toward stemming the flow of pollution that reaches our natural world. By cultivating businesses dedicated to constructing a planet-positive future, Sian sets change in motion. To address the ongoing plastic crisis, A Plastic Planet and SeaLegacy have teamed up to spark important conversations among stakeholders surrounding our relationship with the material. Together, we aim to redirect humanity’s path of pollution, inspire collaboration, and set solutions in motion that take root globally.

In action, SeaLegacy and A Plastic Planet’s partnership convened international scientific and human health experts for The Plastic Solutions and Health Summit, where leaders urged action ahead of the Global Plastic Treaty negotiations at INC-4. Learn more from the Associated Press.

The fight against plastic started in the ocean. It is now so much more.

Plastic is an indestructible material that is the product of fantastic engineering. Yet, its misuse has transformed it from a symbol of progress into one of devastation. We are faced with a stark reality. The plastic crisis is nothing short of a slow march towards a modern-day Armageddon, with far-reaching consequences for our planet and our health.

From its production to disposal, plastic leaves a trail of destruction in its wake, acting as a catalyst for the climate crisis. Born from fossil fuels, the two crises are not just closely entwined; they are one, with a worsening plastic problem exacerbating the climate emergency.

Through its centuries-long lifecycle, from extraction to pollution or incineration, plastic releases greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants at an alarming rate. Recent data from the Swiss Ecoinvent database have found that fossil fuels carry a much heavier carbon footprint than was previously thought, revealing a 30 percent higher impact than prior estimations. If the global plastic industry were a country, it would rank as the fifth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. The so-called disposal method for plastic, recycling, not only contributes to greenhouse gas emissions but enhances a toxic cocktail of unknown chemicals.

As the world’s emissions continue to rise, plastic’s impact cannot be ignored, despite commitments to transition away from fossil fuels. The fossil fuel giants have run a long game of manipulative, exploitative practices, seeing plastic as their Plan B. Without turning off the plastic tap, we will never be able to leave fossil fuels behind and change the tired system of environmental degradation we’ve become accustomed to.

Plastic cleanup in ocean
Photo Credit: Cristina Mittermeier

Nowhere is the inseparable link between the climate and plastic crises more visible than in our ocean. Despite the remarkable ability of species, such as zooplankton, to sequester carbon at a rate 30 times higher than humans produce it from burning fossil fuels, our relentless assault on marine life has led its population to decline by half over the last 70 years. The amount of plastic on Earth now outweighs all land and sea creatures currently alive. Eighty-five percent of marine litter is plastic, and almost one million tonnes of plastic additives are dumped into the ocean each year. Our ocean has become its graveyard, with 170 trillion pieces present in its waters – a number beyond true comprehension and the equivalent of 21,000 pieces of plastic for each person on Earth. Currently, 358 trillion microplastics are floating on the surface of our ocean, with countless more found at the depths of the seabed, where they are expected to be most concentrated. Each of these tiny pieces of plastic again interferes with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide.

Despite growing awareness about ocean waste with the release of Planet Earth: Blue Planet II, this now seems like a distant memory; the problem simply is not going away. Whilst the plastic crisis was first placed in the public consciousness via the ocean, its impact spans the planet and its people. A mountain of peer-reviewed research reports continue to be published on plastic’s health impact, each week revealing more and more evidence…and we’ve still only scratched the surface.

Containing over 16,000 chemicals, half of which have never been tested for human safety, the consequences are an undeniable, silent threat to civilization as we know it. A swathe of plastic chemicals have known endocrine-disrupting effects, causing infertility, cancer, cognitive disorders, and auto-immune diseases.

Plastic on the beach
Photo Credit: Cristina Mittermeier

So, what do we need to do?

There is a short window of opportunity to avert disaster. Yet, there is still no global regulation to stop this threat to mankind and our environment. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect our planet from plastic under the UN Global Plastics Treaty, with the fourth round of negotiations scheduled in Ottawa, Canada, at the end of April 2024.

The Treaty presents an opportunity to set out legally binding targets and timeframes on plastic production and reduction – something we may not be presented with again. In response, the Plastic Health Council and its coalition of health scientists are now working to bring the impact of plastic on human health to the heart of the conversation and any future Treaty. The reduction in the production of plastics, eradication of all but verifiably essential single-use plastic items, the mandate of proper testing of all chemicals in plastics, and the prohibition of ‘the toxic chemical recycling’ of plastic are all key elements outlined in the ambitious Health Scientists’ Global Plastics Treaty released last year.

It is now time for policymakers and corporations across the globe not just to sit up but stand up and take responsibility for the mess created. Nature has always been circular, with no waste whatsoever. We need to rethink our future using these principles. The tried-and-tested waste management methods we now have not only don’t work, but they are devastating humanity.

 

Communities around the world are already experiencing pollution’s overwhelming impact. Among them are the people of Guna Yala Comarca in Panama. Watch their story in the video below.

Join The Tide and our community of action-takers for our planet, wildlife, and people. Become a part of the global ocean movement with Cristina and Paul Nicklen, as together we help support the voices of our coastal communities and rewrite their narrative to a brighter future.

 

Sources:
Renewable Carbon Initiative. (2024) Products made from crude oil have a significantly higher CO2 footprint than previously assumed. Renewable Carbon News. 

Wright, L. (2019). Plastic warms the planet twice as much as aviation – here’s how to make it climate-friendly. The Conversation.

Greenpeace US. (2023). Forever Toxic: The science on health threats from plastic recycling.

Global Oceanic Environmental Survey. (2024). GOES.

The Sea Cleaners (2024). Plastic pollution.

EA – Earth Action (2023). Adding it Up. 

Eriksen, M. A growing plastic smog, now estimated to be over 170 trillion plastic particles afloat in the world’s oceans—Urgent solutions required. PLOS One. 

Rossatto, A. (2023). Microplastics in aquatic systems: A review of occurrence, monitoring and potential environmental risks. Environmental Advances. Vol.13.

PlastChem. (2024). State of Science on Plastic Chemicals.