Beyond the Surface: The Urgency of Addressing Plastic Pollution in Our Oceans

In our era of rampant disposable consumption, the environmental toll of modern conveniences is starkly evident in the form of plastic pollution, especially in our oceans—a crisis demanding immediate action.

In our era of rampant disposable consumption, the environmental toll of modern conveniences is starkly evident in the form of plastic pollution, especially in our oceans—a crisis demanding immediate action. The health of our oceans is crucial for the balance of life on Earth, yet despite decades of warnings, the reckless disposal of plastics persists, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.

A shocking 5.25 trillion macro and micro plastic pieces infiltrate our oceans, with an alarming 46,000 pieces per square mile. Every day, eight million new pieces add to this catastrophe. This crisis traces back to the early 1970s when researchers Carpenter and Smith highlighted plastic pellets in the North Atlantic, foreshadowing the current predicament. The subsequent discovery of fish consuming these pellets underscored the urgency.

Since the mid-20th century, annual plastic production has soared, surpassing two hundred million tonnes, with projections indicating a staggering 26 billion tonnes by 2050. This surge, driven by cost benefits, results in widespread disposal of non-recycled plastics, particularly microplastics ≤ 5 mm, which pervade marine habitats, entering the food chain from corals to whales.

Plastic Pollution: A Global Predicament

Derived from the Greek “plastikos,” meaning malleable, plastics have evolved into versatile materials since their modern inception in 1909. However, their exponential production growth since the 1950s has led to a dire global crisis; plastic pollution.

Driven by media and social awareness, the alarming statistics paint a bleak picture. Annually, 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste are generated worldwide, with a mere 9% recycled, 12% incinerated, and a concerning 79% ending up in landfills. Projections suggest that by 2050, a staggering 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste will saturate ecosystems.

Freshwater environments are also severely impacted, with 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste infiltrating them annually from land sources. The slow degradation of plastics perpetuates the persistence of microplastics, which accumulate in aquatic organisms and pose potential risks to human health through the food chain.

Microplastic Transport: From Land to Sea

Microplastics, plastic particles less than 5 mm in size, have become a pervasive pollutant in marine environments, originating from various terrestrial sources. Research suggests that these particles, released on land, are transported to the oceans through catchment dynamics, erosion, and other transport processes. While earlier studies primarily focused on macroplastics, recent models indicate an upward trend in microplastic export, particularly from regions like South East Asia, highlighting wastewater treatment plants (TWPs) as crucial sources. Improved sewage treatment is proposed as a solution to mitigate future marine microplastic pollution from land-based sources.

Studies show that up to 90% of annual suspended sediment flux is associated with storm events, leading to significant increases in coastal microplastic contamination near river outlets. For instance, observed a substantial export of microplastic particles from bed sediments during a high-magnitude flood event in a UK catchment, potentially transporting them downstream into the ocean.

Microplastics in Seafood

As global seafood demand rises, ensuring the safety of marine-based foods is paramount. These tiny pollutants, detected globally from coastal zones to remote areas like the Arctic, impact marine ecosystems and organisms, enhancing bioavailability and posing risks to human health through seafood consumption. Despite over 690 marine species exhibiting plastic ingestion, comprehensive understanding of the broader implications on human health is lacking. Future research priorities should prioritize dissecting major microplastic sources, fate, and transport dynamics in marine ecosystems, assessing their presence in commonly consumed seafood, and evaluating associated human health risks. Addressing microplastics in marine ecosystems is vital at the intersection of global food security and ocean and human health.

Global Initiatives to Combat Marine Plastic Pollution

Addressing the global crisis of marine plastic pollution necessitates coordinated efforts on an international scale.

The Global Partnership on Plastic Pollution and Marine Litter (GPML), established in June 2012 at Rio+20, operates under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). With a Steering Committee guiding its endeavors, GPML serves as a collaborative platform, bringing together diverse stakeholders to share knowledge and implement joint initiatives aimed at reducing plastic leakage, promoting the ‘3Rs’ principle (reduce, reuse, recycle), advocating closed-loop systems, and encouraging resource efficiency to minimize waste generation.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has also played a crucial role in addressing plastic pollution. During UNEA-3 in 2017, the Ad-hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on marine litter and microplastics was established, extending its mandate through subsequent assemblies until concluding its work before UNEA-5 in 2021. At UNEA-5.2, held on March 2, 2022, 175 participating countries adopted the historic resolution “End plastic pollution: towards an international legally binding instrument,” empowering the UNEP Executive Director to convene an International Negotiating Committee (INC) tasked with developing and adopting such an instrument, addressing the full life cycle of plastics.

Additionally, the Basel Convention, formed in 1989, addresses the transboundary movement of hazardous waste, including plastic waste. Amendments added in 2019, effective from January 2021, aim to strengthen control over plastic waste exports. The Convention includes a Plastic Waste Partnership, fostering global collaboration to manage plastic waste responsibly.

Regionally, the Mediterranean Sea faces significant plastic pollution, prompting action at the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Barcelona Convention. The Portorož Ministerial Declaration commits Contracting Parties to halt marine and coastal biodiversity degradation, combat plastic pollution, and involve youth in environmental decision-making, reflecting a regional response to global sustainability goals.

The lack of effective equipment for removing plastic debris in wastewater treatment plants poses practical challenges. Addressing these obstacles is vital for the success of global efforts to combat marine plastic pollution.

Cleaning Up Our Act: Tackling Plastic Pollution Head-On

Everyone talks about wanting clean oceans, but some of the loudest voices are also the biggest contributors to plastic pollution. Take the United States, for example, churning out a staggering 38 million tons of plastic annually. China isn’t far behind, adding a whopping 70 million tons to the mix – that’s like dumping 100 blue whales’ worth of plastic into the ocean every single year! Indonesia and the Philippines also contribute significantly, adding another 56 million and 28 million tons respectively to the plastic soup swirling in our oceans.

But this mess isn’t just an eyesore; it’s choking marine life and putting coastal communities at risk. So, how do we clean it up?

First and foremost, all countries need to take responsibility. This means investing in better waste management systems, reducing plastic consumption, and implementing stricter regulations on plastic production and export. It’s akin to learning to recycle at home, but on a national scale.

Secondly, wealthier nations should extend a helping hand to poorer countries struggling with plastic waste management. Sharing technology and resources can be likened to assisting them with their overflowing recycling bins.

Lastly, honesty and accountability are paramount. Clear reporting on plastic production and waste disposal is crucial for tracking progress, similar to keeping tabs on how much we recycle at home.

Until the biggest plastic producers clean up their act, saving our oceans will feel like swimming against a plastic tide. It’s time to move beyond mere talk and take concrete action because a truly sustainable future for our oceans depends on it.

Together, let’s stop the talk and start walking the walk towards a cleaner, healthier planet. The time to act is now. Our oceans, and by extension, our planet’s well-being, depend on decisive action to curb plastic pollution and preserve marine ecosystems for future generations.

Ayesha Abrar
Ayesha Abrar
I hold a Bachelor's degree in International Relations. Currently, I am enrolled in the Master of Philosophy (MPhil) program in Strategic Studies at the prestigious National Defense University Islamabad (NDU). My academic pursuits are motivated by a profound interest in understanding the dynamic shifts occurring in the global landscape and the strategic imperatives involved in advancing national interests on the international stage.