UNEP publishes scientific assessment of plastic pollution | News | SDG Knowledge Center


The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has released a global assessment of the marine pollution crisis ahead of the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP 26) and the Assembly of United Nations Environment in 2022. Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a discussion paper on the most effective policy interventions to control single-use plastic waste.

The publication titled “From Pollution to Solution: A Global Assessment of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution”, released on October 21, 2021, provides a scientific basis for the need for urgent action to control plastic emissions in the environment. The authors report that plastics are the largest, most harmful and persistent component of marine litter, accounting for at least 85%. The report sees strong growth in recent years in plastic waste emissions, or leaks, in aquatic ecosystems, which it says are on track to almost triple by 2040.

Specific market failures have accelerated the plastic pollution crisis.

Currently, specific market failures have played a critical role in accelerating the plastic pollution crisis: the low price of virgin fossil fuel raw materials compared to recycled materials, inconsistent efforts in the informal and formal management of plastic waste and lack of consensus on global solutions.

Plastic pollution has impacts in several areas:

  • Human Health: When plastics break down, they transfer microplastics, synthetic and cellulosic microfibers, toxic chemicals, metals, and micropollutants into waters, sediments and possibly marine food chains. For humans, it can lead to hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities, and cancer. Whenever marine species are the primary food source for humans, serious threats are reported from human uptake of microplastics through seafood. Plastics are also ingested through drinks and even common salt; they penetrate the skin and are inhaled when they are suspended in the air. Mental health can be affected by knowing that sea turtles, whales, dolphins and many seabirds – which are culturally important to various communities – are at risk.
  • Wildlife: Marine litter and plastics have deadly effects on whales, seals, turtles, birds and fish as well as corals, bivalves and other invertebrates. When microplastics are ingested, they can cause changes in gene and protein expression, inflammation, disruption of eating behavior, decreased growth, changes in brain development, and reduced filtration rates. and breathing. The report warns that microplastics can therefore “alter the reproductive success and survival of marine organisms and compromise the capacity of key species and ecological” engineers. ”
  • Climate: Marine ecosystems play a major role in carbon sequestration, in particular mangroves, seagrass, corals and salt marshes. Plastics can alter the global carbon cycle through their effect on plankton and primary production in marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems.
  • Global Economy: The economic costs of marine plastic pollution include the negative impacts on the tourism, fishing and aquaculture sectors, as well as the costs associated with cleaning up coastal areas. The assessment also indicates that marine plastic leaks could present a financial risk to the companies that emit the waste; if the government requires companies to cover the costs of waste management, including recycling, it could rise to $ 100 billion by 2040.

The authors warn against any attempt to solve the pollution crisis through increased recycling, and also warn against damaging alternatives to single-use and other plastic products. They explain that existing bio-based and biodegradable plastic options pose a similar chemical threat to conventional plastics.

The report identifies several companies and industries where changes will be needed, including: oil and gas extractors and plastic resin producers; extruders and product manufacturers; automobile and textile manufacturers; consumer products companies; packaging companies; retailers; and waste carriers and unloaders, material recovery operators, waste brokers and recyclers.

The authors call on policymakers to “create the right mix of legislative and fiscal instruments” that:

  • encourage greater disclosure,
  • support data sharing and transparency,
  • provide funding,
  • establish a transparent and efficient regulatory environment, and
  • support research and development to meet the challenge of marine litter and plastic pollution.

Two OECD publications published on October 20, 2021 add to the body of recent information and recommendations on the fight against plastic pollution. An environmental working document explains the importance of applying existing market-based policy measures to reduce waste and single-use plastic waste. He also notes the need for “environmentally preferable substitute materials”.

An OECD report on microplastics pollution focuses on textiles and vehicle tires as the main sources of microplastic pollution in water. The authors note the lack of policy frameworks to mitigate global emissions of microplastics, propose strategies to minimize these emissions and their impacts on human health and ecosystems. [Publication: From Pollution to Solution: A global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution] [UNEP press release] [Interactive report] [UN News]

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