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Marine Litter

Vital Graphics

It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. As this report

explains, we need to act now if we want to avoid living

in a sea of plastic by mid-century – even if we don’t know

everything about what it’s doing to the health of people

or of the environment.

Produced by UNEP and GRID-Arendal, this report shows

that we have to take a hard look at how we produce and

use plastics.

The first plastics hit the market around 1950. At that time

there were 2.5 billion people on Earth and the global

production of plastic was 1.5 million tonnes. Today there

are more than 7 billion people and plastic production

exceeds 300 million tonnes annually. If the trend

continues, another 33 billion tonnes of plastic will have

accumulated around the planet by 2050.

It’s all about consumption. As the global standard of living

has grown, the amount of plastic produced, used and

simply thrown away has skyrocketed – and a vast quantity

makes its way to the ocean.

The presence of marine litter in birds, turtles andmammals

is well documented. A recent comprehensive review

revealed marine litter in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of

whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabirds.

But large marine creatures swallowing or getting caught

in rubbish are only part of the problem. Organisms at

every level, living on the seabed and in the water column,

can be affected. Apart from the physical risk from plastic

there is also concern they are threatened by the ingestion

of hazardous chemicals in the plastic or absorbed on its

surface. The ability of plastic particles in the ocean to

attract organic chemicals that don’t dissolve, including

many toxic substances, has led to a growing number of

studies looking at plastics as a source of toxic chemicals in

marine organisms. What happens to the health of people

who eat food from the sea is another important question.

In fact, the report points to the need for more research

in every area. It states that our knowledge about what

happens to plastics in the marine environment should be

seen as only the tip of the iceberg. Much more is unknown

than known.

The good news is that while a lot of research needs to be

done there is a lot we can do to change our consumption

and production patterns to prevent increasing amounts of

plastic waste from getting into the marine environment.

“Upstream” governance actions can help reduce the

amount of plastic. Recycling is one example, but that

capturesonlya small portionofwasteplastic.Other actions

include prohibitions and creating financial disincentives

to the manufacture and use of plastic materials.

Besides improved governance at all levels, long-term

solutions should focus onbehavioural and systemchanges

such as encouraging more sustainable production and

consumption patterns.

Upstream prevention is preferable to downstream

removal. Or as one of the report chapters says, it’s better

(and cheaper) to be tidy than to have to tidy up.

Knowledge about the effects of plastic in the marine

environment is growing rapidly. We hope that this report

will provide much needed impetus to action.


Director, Division of Environmental

Policy Implementation, UNEP

Peter Harris

Managing Director,


Every year, the sum of humanity’s knowledge increases exponentially. And as we learn

more, we also learn there is much we still don’t know. Plastic litter in our oceans is one

area where we need to learn more, and we need to learn it quickly. That’s one of the

main messages in

Marine Litter Vital Graphics

. Another important message is that we

already know enough to take action.