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
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
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
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
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.