Plastic pollution in the oceans reaches "unprecedented levels"
The oceans and large seas of the planet currently accumulate some 170 trillion pieces of plastic, a figure that is equivalent to some 21,000 polluting particles for each of the people who inhabit the Earth (8,000 million).
Marine pollution by plastics amounts to approximately 2.4 million tons, its presence has accelerated in the last three decades and continues to grow, according to one of the most exhaustive studies that have been carried out to date on this matter, whose Results have been published (March 8) in the journal PLoS One (of the Public Library of Science group).
The figures that are now presented refer to the particle count and estimated mass of small plastics in the surface layer of the oceans and large seas (the Mediterranean is included), without counting the residues present in the deep layers and the seabed.
The author team of the study, led by Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and researcher at The 5 Gyres Institute, in Santa Monica (California, United States), has reviewed and updated the data collected between 1979 and 2019 at 11,777 floating control stations distributed in various ocean points.
Based on these records, the authors have made an extrapolation for the planet as a whole, with the average results indicated at the beginning.
Plastic pollution in oceans has several origins
The sources of plastic pollution in the ocean are numerous. Fishing gear, such as nets and buoys, often ends up in the middle of the ocean, tossed or dumped by accident. In turn, things like clothing, car tires, and single-use plastics often pollute closer to shore.
They eventually break down into microplastics, which Erdle said can be seen as ‘confetti on the surface of the ocean.’
According to the report, the use of plastic will almost double from 2019 in the G20 countries by 2050, reaching 451 million tons each year.
In 1950, only two million tons of plastic were produced in the world.
A better strategy is needed to combat plastic pollution in oceans
According to the study, plastic waste rates were observed to have regressed at some points between 1990 and 2005. This was partly due to the implementation of some effective policies to control pollution.
That includes the 1988 MARPOL treaty, a binding document between 154 countries to eliminate the discharge of plastics from naval, fishing and shipping fleets.
However, with so much more plastic being produced today, the study authors urge a new treaty to not only reduce production and use but also improve its disposal.
‘Environmental recovery of plastic has limited merit, so remediation strategies must first address those systems that restrict plastic pollution emissions,’ the study said.
Last year, 175 countries agreed to end plastic pollution under a legally binding United Nations agreement that could end by 2024.
Among the key actions being negotiated are a global ban on single-use plastics and a ‘polluter pays’ scheme.
It also contemplates a tax on the production of new plastics.
The total weight of plastic pollution detected in the ocean today is estimated at 2.3 million tons, according to the PLOS study.
Know the problem to act better
‘Understanding the accumulation of plastic in the oceans to date could provide a critical baseline to help address this form of pollution,’ the authors note in the first part of their summary of their findings.
Previous studies have focused primarily on the northern hemisphere oceans near the world’s most industrialized nations, while other studies have found increases in ocean plastic over shorter periods of time.
In this study, Eriksen and his colleagues analyzed data from stations located in six marine regions: North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Mediterranean.
Although these results are biased toward trends in the North Pacific and North Atlantic, where most of the data was collected, Eriksen and co-authors suggest that the rapid increase since 2005 reflects global growth in plastic production or changes in waste generation and management.
Without widespread policy changes, the researchers predict that the rate at which plastics enter our waters will increase approximately 2.6 times by 2040.
To reverse this trend, the authors call for legally binding international policy intervention to minimize ecological damage, social and economic pollution by plastics.
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