Plastic waste causes an annual damage of USD 13 billion to the marine ecosystem, two UN reports have said and underlined the need of recycling and redesigning plastic products to bring multiple green economy benefits.
“Plastic contamination threatens marine life, tourism, fisheries and businesses,” the eleventh edition of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Year Book, which updates 10 issues previously highlighted over the past decade and provides mitigation steps for each, said.
“Plastics undoubtedly play a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of the way we use them cannot be ignored,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said.
As per conservative yearly estimates, widespread plastic waste causes USD 13 billion financial damage to marine ecosystems, the UNEP-supported report “Valuing Plastic” said.
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Making a case for managing and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry, the report added, “Over 30 per cent of the natural capital costs are due to greenhouse gas emissions from raw material extraction and processing. Marine pollution is the largest downstream cost, with the USD 13 billion figure most likely a significant underestimate.”
Calculating the negative financial impact of issues such as marine environment or air pollution caused by incinerating plastic, the report said that the overall natural capital cost in the consumer goods sector each year is USD 75 billion.
A large and unquantifiable amount of plastic waste enters the ocean from littering, poorly managed landfills, tourist activities and fisheries.
Some of this material sinks to the ocean floor, while some floats and can travel over great distances on ocean currents – polluting shorelines and accumulating in massive mid-ocean gyres.
“These reports show that reducing, recycling and redesigning products that use plastics can bring multiple green economy benefits: from reducing economic damage to marine ecosystems and the tourism and fisheries industries –vital for many developing countries – to bringing savings and opportunities for innovation to companies while reducing reputational risks,” Steiner said.
The environmental damage due to plastic waste include mortality or illness when ingested by sea creatures such as turtles, entanglement of animals like dolphins and whales and damage to critical habitats such as coral reefs.
“One emerging issue is the increasing use of microplastics directly in consumer products, such as microbeads in toothpaste, gels and facial cleansers,” the UNEP report said.
“These microplastics tend not to be filtered out during sewage treatment, but are released directly into rivers, lakes and the ocean.”
Microplastics have also been identified as a threat to larger organisms, such as the endangered northern right whale, which is potentially exposed to ingestion through filter-feeding, it said.
Production trends, use patterns and changing demographics are expected to cause increasing plastic use, and both reports call for companies, institutions and consumers to reduce their waste.
Consumer goods companies currently save four billion dollars each year through good plastic management, such as recycling, plastic use disclosure is poor, the report said.
Less than half of the 100 companies assessed reported any data relevant to plastic.
Recommendations of the reports include that companies monitor their plastic use and publish the results in annual reports and commit to reducing the environmental impact of plastic through clear targets, deadlines and efficiency and recycling innovations.
Since plastic particles can be ingested by marine organisms and potentially accumulate and deliver toxins through the food web, efforts should be stepped up to fill the knowledge gaps and better understand the capacity of various plastics to absorb and transfer persistent, toxic and bioaccumulating chemicals.
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