Plastic pollution a growing threat in all ecosystems – report

Emissions of waste into aquatic ecosystems projected to nearly triple by 2040.

In Summary

•The report shows that the amount of plastics in the oceans has been estimated to be around 75-199 million tons

•The human body is similarly vulnerable on multiple fronts to plastic pollution in water sources, which could cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and cancer

POLLUTANTS: Plastic bottles on a beach. Image: FILE
POLLUTANTS: Plastic bottles on a beach. Image: FILE

The amount of plastics in the oceans has grown sharply in recent years and is projected to more than double by 2030, a new report indicates.

The report 'From Pollution to Solution': a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution shows that there is a growing threat in all ecosystems from source to sea. 

“Despite current initiatives and efforts, the amount of plastics in the oceans has been estimated to be around 75-199 million tons,” the new report shows.

The report that was released by UNEP on Thursday warns that plastic pollution leakage into aquatic ecosystems is set to have dire consequences for human health, the global economy, biodiversity and the climate.

“The human body is similarly vulnerable on multiple fronts to plastic pollution in water sources, which could cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and cancer,” the report warns.

Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks, and even common salt; they penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air.

The report warns that emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are projected to nearly triple by 2040 without meaningful action.

 This, it warns, will put the health of all the world’s oceans and seas at risk.

Kenya banned the use of single-use carrier bags in February 2017.

The ban went into effect on August 28 that year and applied to carrier bags and flat bags used for commercial and household packaging.

Being found with banned plastics in Kenya attracts a fine of between Sh2 million and Sh4 million or a jail term of one to two years—or both.

Despite the ban, some plastics are still being sneaked into the country through porous borders.

Some 1.2 million pieces of the banned plastic bags were netted a few weeks ago along Isiolo-Moyale road.

The National Environment Management Authority director-general Mamo Mamo says they have been heightening surveillance to curb the illegal plastics from being sneaked into the country.

Mamo said the enforcement of banned plastic bags is on in all 47 counties, adding that the ban was 93 per cent compliant.

“We are looking forward by the end of this year to hit 100 per cent.”

Mamo also says the authority is also towing with the idea of extending the ban to other forms of plastics.

This means that plastic cups and straws could soon be banned.

Mamo says other forms of plastics were becoming one of the biggest catastrophes of our generation and a major threat to biodiversity.

“We are also worried about these other single-use plastics. We are worried about plastic cups, plastic plates, plastic forks and plastic straws,” he says.

He adds: "We are studying whether we can expand and put under the ban.”

On June 5, 2019, Kenya banned single-use plastics on beaches and in national parks, forests, and conservation areas.

The ban prohibits visitors from carrying plastic water bottles, cups, disposable plates, cutlery, and straws into national parks, forests, beaches, and conservation areas.

It is estimated that about five trillion macro and microplastic pieces are floating in the ocean, making up 60-90 per cent of marine debris.

Scientists have warned that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050 unless people stop using single-use plastic items.

Plastic pollution has over time surfed onto beaches, settling onto the ocean floor and rising through the food chain onto dinner tables.

In 1950, the world's population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tonnes of plastic, while in 2016; a global population of more than seven billion people produced over 300 million tons of plastic—with severe consequences for marine plants and animals.

The UNEP report warns that under a business-as-usual scenario and in the absence of necessary interventions, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple from some 9-14 million tons per year in 2016 to a projected 23-37 million tons per year by 2040.

Using another approach, the amount is projected to approximately double from an estimated 19-23 million tons per year in 2016 to around 53 million tons per year by 2030.

The report says marine litter and plastics present a serious threat to all marine life, while also influencing the climate.

Plastics are the largest, most harmful and most persistent fraction of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of total marine waste.

They cause lethal and sub-lethal effects in whales, seals, turtles, birds and fish as well as invertebrates such as bivalves, plankton, worms and corals.

Their effects include entanglement, starvation, drowning, laceration of internal tissues, smothering and deprivation of oxygen and light, physiological stress, and toxicological harm. Plastics can also alter global carbon cycling through their effect on plankton and primary production in marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems.

Marine ecosystems, especially mangroves, seagrasses, corals and salt marshes, play a major role in sequestering carbon.

The report warns that the more damage we do to oceans and coastal areas, the harder it is for these ecosystems to both offset and remains resilient to climate change.

When plastics break down in the marine environment, they transfer microplastics, synthetic and cellulosic microfibers, toxic chemicals, metals and micropollutants into waters and sediments and eventually into marine food chains.

Microplastics act as vectors for pathogenic organisms harmful to humans, fish and aquaculture stocks.

When microplastics are ingested, they can cause changes in gene and protein expression, inflammation, disruption of feeding behaviour, decreases in growth, changes in brain development, and reduced filtration and respiration rates. They can alter the reproductive success and survival of marine organisms and compromise the ability of keystone species and ecological “engineers” to build reefs or bioturbated sediments.

The report says mental health may be affected by the knowledge that charismatic marine animals such as sea turtles, whales, dolphins and many seabirds are at risk.

These animals have cultural importance for some communities.

The report says plastic recycling rates are less than 10 per cent and plastics-related greenhouse gas emissions are significant.

The report says the level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to approximately 2.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2040, or 19 per cent of the global carbon budget.