The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a global assessment of the marine pollution crisis in the lead up to the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP 26) and the UN Environment Assembly’s meeting in 2022. Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) issued a working 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 21 October 2021, provides a scientific basis for the need to urgently act to control plastic emissions into the environment. The authors report that plastics are the largest, most harmful and most persistent component of marine litter, accounting for at least 85%. The report finds sharp growth in recent years of plastic waste emissions, or leakage, into 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 been critical in accelerating the plastic pollution crisis: the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions.

Plastic pollution has impacts in several areas:

  • Human health: As plastics break down they transfer microplastics, synthetic and cellulosic microfibres, toxic chemicals, metals and micropollutants into waters, sediments, and eventually marine food chains. For humans, this can lead to hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and cancer. Whenever marine species are people’s main source of food, serious threats are posted by human uptake of microplastics via seafood. Plastics are also ingested through drinks and even common salt; they penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air. Mental health may be affected by the knowledge that sea turtles, whales, dolphins and many seabirds – which have cultural importance for various communities – are at risk.
  • Wildlife: Marine litter and plastics cause lethal effects in 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 feeding behavior, decreases in growth, changes in brain development, and reduced filtration and respiration rates. The report warns that microplastics can therefore “alter the reproductive success and survival of marine organisms and compromise the ability of keystone species and ecological ‘engineers.’ 
  • Climate: Marine ecosystems play a major role in sequestering carbon, especially mangroves, seagrasses, corals and salt marshes. Plastics can alter global carbon cycling through their effect on plankton and primary production in marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems.
  • Global economy: Economic costs of marine plastic pollution include negative impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture sectors, and costs associated with cleaning up coastal areas. The assessment also reports that marine plastic leakage could pose a financial risk to businesses that emit the waste; if government require businesses to cover waste management costs, including recycling, this could amount to USD 100 billion by 2040.

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

The report identifies several businesses and industries in which changes will be needed, including: oil and gas extractors and plastic resin producers; extruders and product manufacturers; automotive manufacturers and textile manufacturers; consumer product companies; packaging companies; retailers; and waste haulers and landfillers, materials recovery operators, waste brokers, and recyclers.

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

  • incentivize greater disclosure,
  • support data sharing and transparency,
  • provide financing,
  • establish a transparent and effective regulatory environment, and
  • support research and development to address the challenge of marine litter and plastic pollution.

Two OECD publications issued on 20 October 2021 add to the body of recent information and recommendations on addressing plastic pollution. An environmental working paper explains the importance of enforcing existing market-based policy measures to reduce waste and single-use plastic litter. It also notes the need for “environmentally preferable substitute materials.”

An OECD report on microplastics pollution focuses on textiles and vehicle tires as key sources for microplastic pollution in water. The authors note the lack of policy frameworks to mitigate global microplastics emissions, propose strategies for minimizing such 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