Millions of tonnes of plastic enter the environment every year impacting ecosystems and species. Plastic has been found in the air, rain, our bodies and our food chain. Emissions of plastic waste into our rivers and ocean are projected to nearly triple by 2040. That won’t just mean more beached whales with stomachs full of plastic; the human costs will be extreme too.
Earlier this year I produced a report on behalf of Whale and Dolphin Conservation and supported by BRITA examining the impact plastics are having on whales and dolphins. The picture is grim. The more we look, the more we discover the effect our plastic is having on these innocent victims, with plastic filling their stomachs, wrapping around their beaks and tail flukes and even being absorbed into their tissue. The suffering of each individual is unimaginable. Collectively their stories are a wake-up call from the ocean that we have to act now.
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Plastics severely affect the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide (C02) by affecting the photosynthesis and growth of tiny plant-like organisms called phytoplankton and by poisoning zooplankton - microorganisms that feed on the phytoplankton and are food for filter feeders like many whales.
A whale will eat zooplankton and then fertilise the phytoplankton with her poo. So when you consider that phytoplankton provide around half of the oxygen you breathe and remove as much carbon from our atmosphere as 148 billion trees, you can appreciate why plastic pollution is more than just an eyesore or a threat to individual whales and dolphins. It could be catastrophic.
As we’ve just been telling world leaders at COP26, we need to listen to the ocean. A healthy ocean absorbs CO2, a dead one will have devastating consequences for the climate. We need to fundamentally rethink the way we produce, use, reuse, and dispose of plastic.
National changes not enough
The list of countries taking tough action to crack down on unnecessary single-use plastic is long and growing. Kenya has the strictest plastic bag ban worldwide with prison sentences and fines of up to £28,000 for people caught selling, manufacturing or carrying plastic bags. The European Union banned certain single-use plastic items through its Single Use Plastics Directive. Included in the ban are those items most commonly found on beaches: Plastic cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, balloon sticks and beverage stirrers as well as polystyrene items. To ensure responsibility for managing products throughout their lifecycle is fairly transmitted along the supply chain, the directive also sets a path towards implementing Extended Producer Responsibility schemes for other problematic plastic items, such as fishing gear and certain types of consumer plastic.
But national schemes alone will not solve the problem of plastic pollution. Plastic bottles can travel for thousands of kilometres on ocean currents making this a transboundary and complex problem with social, economic, health, and environmental impacts. So we need a global agreement on plastics that aligns businesses and governments behind a shared understanding of the causes of plastic pollution, and a clear approach to addressing them. We need to harmonise regulatory standards across the world, make the development of national targets and action plans compulsory and support innovation and infrastructure development. We need a treaty that drives the transition to a circular economy for plastic - at speed and scale.
One hundred and twenty-eight countries have declared their support for a global plastics treaty, among them the UK, Germany, Argentina, Australia and Russia. Another 26 have agreed to consider such an agreement (including the USA and India). But there is very little time to make sure it will happen.
In less than four months the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) will meet to decide whether to start negotiations on such a treaty. The UNEA is the highest-level decision making body on the environment. It meets every two years in Nairobi to set priorities for global environmental policies and develop international environmental law. It is attended by policymakers, industry representatives, experts and NGOs from all over the world. This meeting is vital because change needs to come quickly.
We need ambitious global action
National governments and industries need to radically transform the way they do things. But at an individual level we can all play a part by reducing the amount of plastic we buy and reusing it when we do. We need to choose alternatives such as loose fruit and vegetables instead of packaged. Try shampoo, soap and deodorant bars, use washable face wipes instead of wet wipes and cotton wool pads and find refillable household cleaning products instead of buying a new plastic bottle each time you run out of washing-up liquid. Look online – there are plenty of products and subscription schemes out there – it’s not nearly as hard or expensive as it once was to make these swaps. But as well as avoiding, we should demand change – request that your supermarkets, brands, councils and governments offer us plastic-free alternatives.
All our individual and national actions add up and make a difference but transformative change will only happen when it’s driven at an international level. It is essential that work begins now on a global plastic treaty that is ambitious enough to match the scale and urgency of the problem, and that it’s agreed upon in record time, because the only solution to marine plastic pollution is to stop the flow of plastic from all sources.
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