Plastic pollution in the oceans: the need for a global response

Plastic waste in the ocean

Plastic waste in the ocean © Richcarey

In the “Challenge” section of open_resource magazine, Jean-Louis Chaussade sets out his vision of a major challenge of the resource revolution. In this issue, he underlines the urgency to fight against plastic pollution in the oceans.

Resistant, flexible, lightweight, waterproof… those are among the numerous qualities of plastic, making it a staple material, used across the whole field of day-to-day life. Food packaging, textile production, the manufacturing of electrical equipment, cars, etc. Production soared from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to more than 300 million tonnes in 2014! This exponential growth in plastic production has had a considerable impact on the quantity of plastic waste, which all too often ends up in our planet’s oceans. In the form of macro or micro-waste, this pollution is disastrous for marine ecosystems, and, as a consequence, for mankind. A global scourge, which requires the mobilisation of stakeholders, political, scientific, associative or economic.
If nothing is done, by 2050, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish. This alarming forecast, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, highlights the urgency in acting to stop the pollution of our oceans by plastic. Marine animals ingesting macro-waste can be injured or suffocate—a recent study revealed the presence of this marine waste in 100% of sea turtle and 40% of sea birds.

Due to the waves and sunlight, the waste breaks up into micro-waste—invisible to the naked eye. Transported by ocean currents, they build up in the major oceanic gyres, forming “plastic soup”. The dissemination process also helps the proliferation of invasive species, which cause untold damage to sensitive eco-systems. During their breakdown, they give off a number of toxic chemical substances, with a direct impact on marine life. Finally, when mixed in with plankton, they are ingested by fish, which in turn are eaten by larger species, and-so-on up the food chain.

We are aware than 80% of marine plastic waste has a terrestrial source, drained by water courses or thrown away on the coasts. Faced with these problems, solutions exist, and must be implemented at all levels. Upstream—through a reduction in the consumption, and thus the production, of plastics. In this field a key role is played by public awareness campaigns, supported by regulations. The banning of single-use plastic bags in a number of countries is a perfect example of progress in the field. In France, this has been the case since the 1st July 2016.

Plastic debris on the shore © jacus

Those parties, like SUEZ, active in the circular economy, propose solutions covering the full length of the water and waste cycles. By improving collection and treatment systems for waste, preventing plastic reaching the natural environment. By working towards promoting the expansion of plastics recovery systems, creating biogas, energy, and recycling it into secondary raw materials. By regarding plastic waste as a resource, helping create the conditions required for a circular economy of plastic.

More than ever before, this direction appears imperative, when we see that just 30% of plastic waste is currently being recycled in Europe, compared with 9% in the United States and 25% in Japan. Throughout the world, initiatives are springing up in favour of this new economy, led by industrials, small & medium-sized enterprises, nongovernmental organisations or even private individuals. Manufacturing new objects from plastic waste collected in the oceans; developing R&D programmes aimed at improving plastic recovery, or even integrating the issue of recycling into the initial product design; imagining financial incentives for recycling, including deposit-based systems…

Measures can also be implemented further upstream in the water cycle to prevent marine pollution: through optimised management of storm waters, which can drain waste and pollutions into water courses and the coastline, or even improving the processes in wastewater treatment plants, notably filtering out the micro-plastics coming, for example, by textile fibres from household washing machines.

The sheer scale of plastic production and its impact on the environment has led some scientists to define it as a geological marker of our era. Its dissemination into our oceans is a global problem, requiring multiple responses from those in civil society, economic parties and political decision-makers. Scientific, technological, but also social innovation, as well as collaboration, are at the heart of the solutions which must urgently be implemented to prevent this haemorrhaging of plastics into our oceans.

This article was published in the third issue of open_resource magazine: «The oceans, future of the blue planet»


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