The global plastics tide

The problem of plastic pollution is now globally known. The extensive use of plastics has helped to improve many lives, but there are also serious downsides. 

Plastics are relatively lightweight and can easily be carried by wind, water, gravity. They are resistant to biodegradation, but fragment into smaller and smaller bits which attract and absorb other pollutants and enter the food web, thereby affecting living organisms. Microplastics (coming from fragmentation of larger plastic items, but also from microbeads intentionally added to toothpastes and scrubs, or from tyres and washing of plastic-based textiles like fleece) are everywhere – they have been found in drinking water, in air, in soils. Their impacts on human health are still largely unknown. 

Many governments and agencies have decided to act on the plastic problem. The UN Environmental Assembly has started dedicated discussions, some countries or coastal regions have banned various types of plastics (mainly certain single-use items). The EU issued a “Plastic Strategy”, i.e. a framing document for actions to tackle the problem, which was followed by a Single-Use Plastics Directive that gives direction to reduction targets for many types of single-use plastics, and even bans for others (e.g. straws, stirrers, tableware). 

The plastic problem in a nutshell:

  • Since 1950, the production of plastics has grown from 2 million tonnes a year (1950) to 381 million tonnes a year (2015); the total amount of plastics ever manufactured is more than 8 billion tonnes.
  • Every year around 10 million tonnes of plastics are estimated to get into seas and oceans – a truckload a minute; which is “turning oceans into a plastic soup”.
  • With no action to cut the pace of plastics entering seas, by 2050 we’d have more plastics than fish mass in the oceans. A recent study estimated that in a “business as usual” scenario, the amount of plastics entering our oceans would triple by 2040.
  • Over time, the flow of plastics into oceans has created the so-called “garbage patches” (e.g. the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to have more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons).
  • Importantly, 80% of the plastic getting into oceans comes from land-based sources, emphasising the need for targeted actions on production and consumption of plastics.

A great infographic on sources and fate of plastic marine litter may be found here.