Fuel for Thought
We Are in a Plastics Pollution Crisis, says UNEP Head
Mar 10 2022
On Wednesday 2nd March, the fifth session of the United Nations’ Environmental Assembly was adjourned, and news began to emerge of an agreement signed by 173 member-states – including India, Japan, and the United Kingdom – to draw up a set of international laws to end plastic pollution. Ambitiously, these regulations are to be decided by 2024.
It seems, of course, to be common sense that plastics pollution is a serious problem. But the urgency of this latest resolution, regarded by the Executive Director of the UN’s Environmental Programme to be ‘the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris Accord’, drives home the fact that the situation is perhaps even more alarming than is widely understood. Indeed, the Executive Director, Inger Andersen, said something else when she was interviewed about the new resolution.
She said that we’re living in the middle of a ‘plastics pollution crisis.’
Taking on Water
So, what exactly does this crisis look like? Well, for the most part, it looks like the “plastic islands” that have become such prominent images in contemporary doomsday prophecies.
You see, between 1950 and 2017, the production of plastic exploded, rocketing up from 2 million to 348 million tonnes – and lots of it ended up in our oceans. Every year, the UN reported in 2021, we pour 11 million tonnes of plastic into the sea.
And it’s going up. With the capacity of the global plastics industry set to double by 2040, the annual rate of oceanic plastic is expected to triple.
Plastic is polluting the air, too.
Since their last survey in 2016, the United Nations’ Environmental Programme found that a further 43 countries had begun to regulate the open burning of waste by 2021, putting the total at 94. It’s progress, of course – but of these 94, only 38 follow laws that the UNEP considers strict.
And the problem certainly warrants iron-fisted regulation: it has been repeated that almost 70 million tonnes of plastic waste is burned at open-air waste disposal sites every year.
These incinerations could be having a significant impact on human health. Typically, common-use plastics tend to be replete with a number of chemicals classified as endocrine disruptors – components like bisphenol-A, phthalates and perfluorinated compounds. Even at low levels, these endocrine disruptors have been linked to various cancers, early puberty in girls, diabetes, obesity, reproductive disorders, and neurodevelopmental deficiency, the Endocrine Society reported in 2020.
The potential toll of these maladies is drastic. For the European Union, the University of Utrecht calculated the economic burden of those disorders that have been linked to endocrine disruptors to be somewhere between 46- and 288,000,000,000EUR.
However, the Executive Director of the UNEP suggests that there might be a way out of this – and it’s an escape-route that might just save the petroleum and petrochemical industries, too.
Here’s Inger Andersen’s prediction: if we can move to a thriving circular economy in plastics by 2040, we could reduce the amount of plastics in the ocean by 80% by 2040 (instead of increasing it threefold), cut the production of virgin plastic in half, and create 700,000 new jobs, mainly in the Global South, in the process.
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