Plastic pollution is no breaking news. The hard-wearing material finds a part to play in all areas of our lives and consequently, is showing up increasingly in the remotest corners of the world as untreated waste. We may now be at a point of no return.
A new study suggests that plastic pollution may soon be past its tipping points, and further efforts at reversal may not be effective enough to be helpful. This would be the case if business-as-usual scenarios in terms of generation, use, and disposal continued.
The levels of annual plastic emissions into the water bodies of the world ranged from 9 to 23 million metric tons per year, as per 2016 estimates. Land emissions reached similar heights. If continued at the same pace, we can expect these estimates to double by the year 2025.
“The world promotes technological solutions for recycling and to remove plastic from the environment. As consumers, we believe that when we properly separate our plastic trash, all of it will magically be recycled. Technologically, the recycling of plastic has many limitations, and countries that have good infrastructures have been exporting their plastic waste to countries with worse facilities. Reducing emissions requires drastic actions, like capping the production of virgin plastic to increase the value of recycled plastic, and banning the export of plastic waste unless it is to a country with better recycling,” said Mine Tekman, a Ph.D. candidate at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and co-author of the study. She points out that the issue of plastic pollution is not only environmental but also political and economic, and that present solutions do not tackle the problem at the root.
Furthermore, the research also points out that the emission level far exceed the effects of clean-up initiatives, recycling efforts, and even long-term natural processes such as weathering. Even with processes such as weathering, which refers to degradation of the material over time owing to natural elements, plastic remains in the environment in the forms of microplastics and nanoplastics.
This relentless emission coupled with the persistence of the material is nowhere ideal but could be especially harmful to remote environments owing to a lack of uniform accessibility and clean-up efforts. “In remote environments, plastic debris cannot be removed by cleanups, and weathering of large plastic items will inevitably result in the generation of large numbers of micro- and nano-plastic particles as well as leaching of chemicals that were intentionally added to the plastic and other chemicals that break off the plastic polymer backbone. So, plastic in the environment is a constantly moving target of increasing complexity and mobility. Where it accumulates and what effects it may cause are challenging or maybe even impossible to predict,” points out co-author Annika Jahnke, researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ).
Plastic pollution, set to reach irreversible levels if left unchecked, could soon lead to climate change aggravation, biodiversity loss, and several other adverse effects. Bigger steps towards reducing emissions and protecting the environment are essential to combat such a future.
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