As thousands of experts convened in New York to discuss the solutions required, ISWA’s Antonis Mavropoulos and Costas Velis explain the organisation’s new global initiative on Marine Litter – which it will be presenting at the event.
There may be no silver bullet, but the urgent problem requires a rethink, not only about plastics, but our economic models, development strategies and the future of consumption patterns.
The UN Ocean Conference started 5 June 5 in New York. This conference aims to be the game changer that will reverse the decline in the health of our ocean for people, the planet and prosperity, seeking solutions from all stakeholders.
Our oceans are already the biggest dumpsite for million tonnes of used plastics per year. Recently, marine scientists found that Henderson Island, a tiny isolated landmass in the eastern South Pacific, has spots with the highest density of anthropogenic debris recorded anywhere in the world, with 99.8% made up of plastics. But, the visible plastic pollution, so usual in almost every shoreline in the world, is a relatively small problem in comparison to the invisible one.
SECONDARY MICROPLASTICS REPRESENT THE MOST ALARMING AND URGENT PROBLEM
As plastics slowly degrade and become fragmented in the water, they are transformed in invisible tiny particles - we call them (secondary) microplastics – they even go down to the nano scale of size.
While considerable preventive action has already been agreed for the so called ‘primary’ microplastics (engineered small plastic items purposefully added in personal care products, such as in face scrubbers), it seems that the bulk of microplastics stem from the breaking down of larger plastics items, which have been littered or dumped in the first place (poorly managed solid waste).
Considerable quantities of secondary microplastics are also generated by washing our increasingly synthetic clothes (textiles) – the wastewater treatment plants are not capable of retaining them.
These microplastics are therefore becoming an ‘integral’ part of marine ecosystems. Apparently, they can be part of the plankton’s food chain, as recent research demonstrated. They are even already present, in small but measurable concentrations, in several commercial salts. They were identified in Marianna trench, the deepest and probably the most remote part of the planet, 11 km below the sea surface.
Transforming the oceans into plastic disposal ‘dumps’ was not difficult at all. Oceans are the perfect dumps because they are ‘out of sight – out of mind’. Oceans are too big, too deep and expand beyond the horizon. And the damage caused may not have been felt by directly and immediately by human beings until relatively recently, at least in reasonable human time-scales.
A short-sighted approach will only lead to greater challenges, not only for oceans, but also for our societies: think of other small local actions that lead to challenges at planetary scale: ozone layer depletion and global warming due to anthropogenic emissions.
The genuine challenge with plastics is that they are very successful as materials, so they can effectively and successfully replace metals, wood and glass in a diverse range of applications.
Quite simply, the ability to modify the properties of plastics to meet a vast array of designers’ needs is almost endless. But, the reality is even more complex and difficult: we are actually living in a huge, multidimensional and continuously expanding plastic matrix and that obliges us to think twice each and every intervention we make.
This is a key element that seems to be somehow underestimated in the relevant debate. Plastics are not an insignificant external aspect of our world, they are an integral part delivering fundamental functionality that connects, strengthens, builds, resolves, transports, but also, as in the case of oceans, when managed irresponsibly at the its end of life phase, pollute.
Our dependencies have led to a conflict. On the one hand, we depend too much on plastics to get rid of them immediately, in a magic way: the pace of increase in synthetic plastics production and use has been exponential since 1950s and there is no sign of change.
On the other hand, we, as humans, depend too much on our oceans to let them become ‘plasticized’ – laden with plastic fragments. Oceans provide more than 3 billion people with more than 20% of their protein needs; fishing and aquaculture provide daily income to almost 10% of the world’s population – and so on.
So, what we should do?
First, we should understand the problem better and establish some accountability. There are so many statistics floating around about ocean plastics, but who knows which is reliable and scientifically documented.
For sure, we can’t manage it if we can’t measure it, but this case is not so simple. We need more and better science to understand the specific sources and the pathways plastics and microplastics follow before entering the oceans.
We need to understand the material flows, and combine them with material properties, exposures and risks: in short, we need to identify where the major leakages and hazards occur, and then prioritize fixing them, starting from the genuinely major ones. Open dumping of solid waste in rivers and waterways is, most possibly, a major pathway.
Second, obviously, we can’t continue to feed the oceans with plastics like we do it now. Ocean plastics and microplastics should be treated like CO2 emissions: an anthropogenic change to the planet at a global scale. We need a global plan to reduce plastics and microplastics flows to the oceans, and it would better be a fast and radical one.
This reduction can be achieved only with a new international agreement, supported by all major countries and plastic producers, and part of it should be a global version of the Extended or Individual Producer Responsibility for selected products and materials.
Indeed, ISWA is responding to the sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14) is about to formally launch a new global initiative (Marine Litter Task Force).
We aim to establish and exemplify the fundamentally positive role sound management of waste as resources can have in the medium and long term towards mitigating and eventually resolving the plastics marine pollution.
With an order of magnitude of 3 billion people without sound disposal facilities and 2 billion people without suitable primary collection of solid waste, as established by the seminal UNEP/ISWA Global Waste Management Outlook, there is no doubt that provision of relevant infrastructure in the lower income countries could massively prevent leakages of waste plastics into the water at large scale.
This also directly suggests that the relevant sub-SDGs of oceans need to be somehow connected to the sub-SDGs pertaining to solid waste collection. Cities and ports, rivers and dumpsites could be initial points of focus.
Third, we need to consider the possibility to characterize at least some forms of microplastics as hazardous substances. This could help towards putting them under stricter control, improve their traceability, and gradually reduce their presence in several products.
The obvious elimination of primary engineered microplastics, not least because of their potential hazardousness (precautionary principle), should be combined with a massive reassessment of the positive value of used plastics. Indeed, they do not belong to the sea, but their embodied value as technical engineered materials or, where not recyclable, as secondary fuel, should be openly and widely acknowledged.
This could become a major preventive force – e.g. via automated take back equipment/ schemes in the Global North or itinerant waste buyers in the low-income countries.
Fourth, we must ensure that currently (or temporarily) non-recyclable plastics, and there are a lot of them, will not escape waste treatment and/ or proper disposal.
Closing the world’s dumpsites (80% of the World’s 50 biggest dumpsites are nearby the seashore and rivers), upgrading recycling systems, and delivering proper collection services to the billions of currently underserviced, is a certain way to make a difference in harnessing plastics marine pollution.
Investing in integrated sustainable waste management in the developing world could be the silver-bullet to achieving an immediate reduction of the plastic flows into the oceans.
Fifth, we need to utilize the 4th industrial revolution to create a new operational system for plastics. The rise of the internet of bins, internet of packaging, machine intelligence and user engagement through software and apps can deliver a new operational system that will stimulate a surge in plastic resource recovery, whilst improving the traceability for the most potentially hazardous materials.
No Silver Bullet
Just as important, similar to the case of climate change, it seems that we have to consider adaptation plans. Pretending that we can restore the ecosystems at their state before the microplastics intrusion can be misleading and possibly meaningless.
We must better understand the new ecosystem created, and try to develop a long-term plan for its management. This could mean that we need to find ways to protect our food and income from being critically damaged due to plastics marine pollution.
Maybe we need to invent technologies that will help us to effectively remove plastics and microplastics from selected locations. Or maybe we need to find ways to contain and preserve the least affected watersheds.
In all cases, the global challenge of plastics marine litter requires a rethink, which is not just about plastics, but also covers our dominant economic model, our development strategies and the future of consumption patterns.
In the meantime, better waste management, improvements in recycling and supply chains, and better design could provide useful relief to the ecosystems. We do not know if there will be a ‘silver bullet’ (and beware of locking resources into ‘white elephants’), but the only one we can imagine is the eventual long-term discovery of new materials that will substitute for existing plastics in our plastic matrix, the same way plastics have been substituting for so many other materials in so many different uses the last 65 years.
Human ingenuity delivered plastics and along with them, plastic marine litter pollution. Let’s hope that human ingenuity will be capable to save the oceans too…
Antonis Mavropoulos, ISWA President and Costas Velis, Chair of ISWA’s Task Force on Marine Litter.
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