19 May 2016 Story Ecosystems

Plastic and Microplastics in our Oceans – A Serious Environmental Threat

Marine litter causes economic adversity for coastal communities and negatively affects the health of both marine life and human beings. It’s a global problem that requires global solutions.

Litter is found in all the world's oceans and seas, even in remote areas far from human contact and obvious sources of the problem. The continuous growth in the amount of plastics produced and solid waste thrown away, combined with the very slow rate of degradation of most items, is leading to a gradual increase in marine plastic debris found at sea.

Microplastics – pieces of plastic ranging in size from 5mm to nano proportions – are a key part of the world’s marine litter problem. Primary microplastics include plastics found in personal care and cosmetics products, and pre-production plastic resin pellets. Secondary microplastics are created when larger plastic items break down into smaller pieces. These pieces can enter marine food chains and potentially pose huge risks for the environment and human health. They are easily ingested by fish, mussels and other sea animals.

Moreover, there is growing scientific evidence linking them to the passage of persistent chemicals through the environment, such as the pesticide DDT and toxic PCBs, making them more concentrated when they come into contact with marine life. In addition, research into the presence of microplastics in seawater has shown that they are almost everywhere – on ocean surfaces, near the mouths of rivers, on coasts and even in deep-sea sediments.

Marine Litter at UNEA-2
Pollution of the oceans by these tiny pieces of plastic debris is now so widespread that only radical action to eliminate the problem at source can limit further damage to ecosystems and human health.

At the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2), due to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 23-27 May 2016, world leaders will be discussing a draft resolution on Marine Plastic Debris and Microplastics. The resolution, which is a follow-up to the resolution adopted at UNEA-1 in 2014, is proposed by Norway and co-sponsored by Chile, Indonesia and Australia. It urges the phasing-out of primary microplastic particles in products such as personal care products, industrial abrasives and printing products and their substitution with organic or mineral, non-hazardous compounds.

It also recognizes that surface run-off, rivers, and sewage outfalls are important pathways for the transfer of litter (including microplastics) from land to the sea, and that there is a need for measures against littering of freshwater courses.

To inform negotiations, a study titled MARINE PLASTIC DEBRIS AND MICROPLASTICS, Global lessons and research to inspire action and guide policy change will be presented at UNEA as requested by UNEA-1. The study is a comprehensive overview of the latest science on marine litter-related topics.

Accompanying the study is a set of policy recommendations for decision-makers. The recommendations include inviting international bodies, such as the World Trade Organization and the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, to address marine litter-related issues; encouraging countries to consider a ban on single-use plastics; and strengthening education and awareness on marine litter by, for instance, introducing marine litter-relevant elements into educational curricula at all education levels.

Sustainable Development Goals
Under target 14.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), governments across the globe have agreed to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds from land-based activities by 2025. Marine litter is explicitly mentioned in this regard.

Under the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, which is hosted by UNEP, a Global Partnership on Marine Litter has been established, giving UNEP a strong mandate to work on this issue.

Given the complexity and the global scope of the issue, a concerted effort involving both national and local governments as well as the private sector, non-governmental organizations and citizens is needed.

In the short-term, focusing on measures that prevent plastic that has already been produced from reaching the sea, such as improving waste management and waste to energy efforts, are key.

It should be noted however, that in the long term, what is needed is a shift in the way we think about plastic. We need to stop viewing it as something that can just be thrown away after it has been used, and start viewing it as a valuable resource of which we have only a limited supply. This means that both the production and consumption of plastic must be reduced. The draft resolution to be discussed at UNEA is a first step in this direction.