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New Studies: Ocean Plastic Waste Is Worse Than We Thought

Plastic sandwich baggy floating in the water column. Fish that feed on various salps, jelly-fish, etc. mistake such trash for food and can ingest this with fatal consequences. Compare to images reef2130, reef0859, and reef0556.
Plastic sandwich baggy floating in the water column. Fish that feed on various salps, jelly-fish, etc. mistake such trash for food and can ingest this with fatal consequences. Compare to images reef2130, reef0859, and reef0556. (Photo: Ben Mierement, NOAA NOS)

Dr. Geyer told the Guardian that plastic pollution, which usually ends up in landfills or oceans, will result in a “near-permanent contamination” of the earth.

Two recent studies found plastic pollution to be worse than previously expected. One study found a sharp increase in plastic pollution in the ocean since the 1950s, and the other study found tiny particles of plastic, or microplastics, being transported by air to far-away ecosystems.

Previous studies have found microplastics in a diverse range of animals, including bottom-living sea creatures. After the plastic is ingested by small creatures, microplastics move up the food chain and can affect humans. One study found microplastics in one of 50 marine animals on U.K. shores.

Scientists are not completely sure of the effects plastic consumption could have on human health, but a group of seven marine scientists studying the impact of plastic consumption on marine animals in 2017 warned of impaired reproductive function among other serious health issues. The scientists urged the U.N. to form a new treaty on plastic pollution, which led to the non-binding Clean Seas Pact later that year.

US Bucks Global Approach to Plastic Pollution

In March 2019, U.N. nations met in Nairobi, Kenya, to craft a plan to tackle plastic pollution. Environmental groups attending the conference condemned the United States for what they perceived to be attempts to water down the goals of the resolution. While other nations wanted to “phase out” the creation and use of plastics completely, the U.S. sought to “reduce” plastic production, and framed the problem as a problem with waste management issue rather than production.

David Azoulay, an attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law, expressed disappointment with the U.S.’s efforts to weaken the treaty:

“The vast majority of countries came together to develop a vision for the future of global plastic governance. Seeing the US, guided by the interests of the fracking and petrochemical industry, leading efforts to sabotage that vision is disheartening.”

Large U.S.-based oil firms, such as ExxonMobil Chemical and Shell Chemical, will help fuel a 40% rise in plastics over the next decade, according to experts. These companies have invested more than $180 billion in plastic production since 2010, boosted by the boom in shale gas.

Warnings of “Near-Permanent” Plastic Contamination of Earth

According to Dr. Roland Geyer, the author of a study showing humans to have produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic since the 1950’s, the recent increase in plastic production will have grave effects:

“I am now all but convinced that the plastic waste/pollution problem will remain unmanageable without serious source reduction efforts. Building out production capacity is obviously the opposite of source reduction.”

Dr. Geyer told the Guardian that plastic pollution, which usually ends up in landfills or oceans, will result in a “near-permanent contamination” of the earth.

Some countries, such as Kenya and Iceland, have taken strong action to curtail the use of plastics. After an analysis showed 90% of the world’s major bottled water brands contain microplastics, the World Health Organization launched a review into the potential risks of plastic in drinking water. The U.K. banned plastic microbeads in personal care products in early 2019, and the E.U. has announced measures to follow suit.

Game of Thrones and Aquaman actor Jason Momoa shaved his beard to raise awareness for plastic pollution on Thursday. Along with the popularity of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II television series, it appears awareness of plastic pollution is gaining traction in popular culture.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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