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Plastic waste is found
everywhere in the world, from the
highest mountain to the deepest
Unnecessary and avoidable plastics –
single-use packaging and disposable
items like plastic straws and food
containers – are polluting the planet.
Many animals mistakenly ingest plastic
believing it to be a food source. This can
cause injury, suffocation, starvation and
Plastic contaminates our air, land and sea.
It can enter the human body through the
food we eat, the water we drink and the
air we breathe.
Our mismanagement of plastic is causing
a planetary crisis with impacts on
ecosystems, biodiversity, human health
and the climate.
Mass production of plastics began in the 1950s and since that time, the production of new, or virgin, plastic has risen exponentially – from two million tonnes per year in 1950 to 367 million tonnes in 2020. This is projected to exceed one billion tonnes per year by 2050. Plastic leakage into the environment, either as litter or as waste in managed systems, has also increased and is projected to nearly triple from 2016 – 2040. It is estimated that 7 billion of the estimated 9 billion tonnes of the plastics produced between 1950 and 2017 is now waste. Three-quarters of this is either in landfills or accumulating in the environment where it inevitably ends up in the oceans.
The economic costs of plastic pollution in the marine environment are significant. It is estimated that in 2018 the global impacts of plastic pollution on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture cost US$6-19 billion. This is expected to grow as the projected use of plastic grows. But even this number underestimates the true costs since it does not take into account the loss of future income because of habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, nor does it include the substantial costs related to human health, cultural and societal wellbeing.
Plastic pollution in the ocean is problematic for many reasons. Animals risk injury and death when they mistakenly eat plastic waste. Pieces of plastic have been found in the digestive system of many aquatic organisms, including in every species of marine turtle and nearly half of all surveyed seabird and marine mammal species. Furthermore, when plastics break up into smaller pieces, known as microplastics and nanoplastics, they can transfer toxic chemicals, metals and micropollutants into marine food chains, and ultimately into the human food chain. Plastic pollution takes an economic toll too, threatening the livelihoods of coastal communities and impacting the tourism, fishing and aquaculture industries.
Plastic is made from oil and gas – fossil fuels. Plastic products create greenhouse gas emissions throughout their whole lifecycle, from production to distribution to degeneration. The more plastic we make, the more CO2 is released and the more we intensify the climate crisis.
If plastic is to be used, it must fit within the circular economy model. In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste – the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place. The circular economy is modelled on nature where there is no such thing as waste and everything we produce is renewable and regenerative by design. The circular economy is designed to:
We have the power to reverse the plastic crisis. Put simply, if we reduce plastic consumption, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce waste and reverse the harm plastics are doing to the environment. We can turn off the tap by phasing out the unnecessary, avoidable and most problematic plastics and replacing them with sustainable alternatives.