World leaders must act together to tackle ocean plastics crisis: WWF
Plastic has permeated all sections of the ocean and can now be detected “from the smallest plankton to the largest whale”, according to WWF, which is pushing for immediate action to develop an international treaty against plastic.
Plastic particles have found their way to the most remote and supposedly pure parts of the planet: they have been detected in fish from the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. Although delegates coming to Nairobi for a United Nations meeting on the environment this month are expected to begin talks on a global plastics treaty, there is no international agreement in place to address the problem.
In its latest report, WWF attempted to strengthen the case for action by synthesizing more than 2,000 separate pieces of scientific research on the effects of plastic litter on the seas, biodiversity and marine ecosystems. According to the report, there is currently insufficient evidence to assess the potential human consequences.
The fossil fuel-derived substance, however, “has reached all regions of the ocean, from the surface of the sea to the deep ocean floor, from the poles to the coasts of the most isolated islands, and is detectable in the most small plankton to the largest whale,” according to the study.
WWF analysis predicts that between 19 and 23 million tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the world’s waterways each year. This is largely due to single-use plastics, which still account for over 60% of marine pollution, despite more and more governments taking action to ban their use.
“In many places we are approaching levels that pose a serious threat to marine ecosystems,” said Eirik Lindebjerg, WWF’s global plastics policy manager. According to him, there is a possibility of “ecosystem collapse” in some areas.
Many people have seen images of seabirds choking on plastic straws or turtles wrapped in abandoned fishing nets, but he says the threat is present throughout the marine food web.
This “will not only impact whales, seals and turtles, but also the vast fish stocks and species that depend on them,” he warned. In a 2021 study, 386 of 555 species of fish tested ingested plastic.
Separate research into major commercially fished species found that up to 30% of cod in a sample from the North Sea had microplastics in their stomachs. Once in the water, the plastic begins to degrade, shrinking to the size of “nanoplastic”, invisible to the naked eye.
Even if all plastic pollution ceased, the volume of microplastics in the oceans could more than double by 2050. However, according to WWF projections, plastic production will more than double by 2040, with ocean plastic pollution ahead of triple over the same period.
Lindebjerg compares the situation to the climate crisis and the concept of a “carbon budget”, which limits the amount of CO2 that can be released into the atmosphere before a ceiling on global warming is exceeded.
“There is a limit to the amount of plastic pollution our marine ecosystems can absorb,” he explained. According to the WWF, these limits for microplastics have already been reached in several parts of the world, including the Mediterranean, the Yellow and East China Seas (between China, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula) and the Arctic sea ice.
“We have to treat it as a fixed system that doesn’t absorb plastic, and that’s why we have to get to zero emissions and zero pollution as soon as possible,” said Lindebjerg.
WWF is calling for talks at the UN Environment meeting in Nairobi from February 28 to March 2 to hammer out an international agreement on plastics.
He wants any treaty to result in global production standards and true “recyclability”. Trying to clean up the oceans is “extremely difficult and extremely expensive”, according to Lindebjerg, who adds that it is better, in all respects, not to pollute in the first place.