Plastic has invaded all parts of the ocean and is now found “from the tiniest plankton to the largest whale,” the wildlife organization WWF said on Tuesday (Feb. 8), calling for urgent efforts to create an international treaty on plastics. .
Tiny bits of plastic have reached even the most remote and seemingly pristine parts of the planet: it sprinkles the Arctic sea ice and has been found in fish in the deepest reaches of the ocean, the Mariana Trench.
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There is no international agreement to address the issue, although delegates meeting this month in Nairobi for a United Nations environmental meeting are expected to begin talks on a global plastics treaty.
WWF sought to strengthen the case for action in its latest report, which includes more than 2,000 separate scientific studies on the effects of plastic pollution on oceans, biodiversity and marine ecosystems.
The report acknowledges that there is currently insufficient evidence to estimate the potential impact on humans.
But it found that the fossil fuel-derived substance “has reached every part of the ocean, from the sea surface to the deep ocean floor, from the poles to the shorelines of the most remote islands, and is detectable in the tiniest plankton to the largest whale” .
According to some estimates, between 19 million and 23 million tons of plastic waste are flushed into the world’s waterways every year, according to the WWF report.
This comes largely from single-use plastics, which still account for more than 60 percent of marine pollution, although more and more countries are stepping up to ban their use.
“In many places, we are reaching some kind of saturation point for marine ecosystems, where we are approaching levels that pose a significant threat,” said Eirik Lindebjerg, Global Plastics Policy Manager at WWF.
There is a risk of ecosystem collapse in some places, he said.
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Many people have seen images of seabirds choking on plastic straws or turtles wrapped in discarded fishing nets, but he said the danger is throughout the marine food web.
It “will not only affect the whale and the seal and the turtle, but also huge fish stocks and the animals that depend on them,” he added.
In a 2021 study, 386 species of fish were found to have ingested plastic, out of 555 species tested.
Separate studies, looking at the main commercially fished species, found that up to 30 percent of cod in a sample caught in the North Sea had microplastics in their stomachs.
Once in the water, the plastic begins to break down and shrink until it is a “nanoplastic”, invisible to the naked eye.
So even if all plastic pollution were to stop completely, the volume of microplastics in the oceans could double by 2050.
But plastic production continues to rise, possibly doubling by 2040, according to projections quoted by WWF, with ocean plastic pollution expected to triple over the same period.
Lindebjerg likens the situation to the climate crisis — and the concept of a “carbon budget,” which limits the maximum amount of CO2 that can be emitted into the atmosphere before exceeding global warming.
“There’s actually a limit to how much plastic pollution our marine ecosystems can absorb,” he said.
Those limits for microplastics have already been reached in several parts of the world, according to WWF, most notably in the Mediterranean Sea, the Yellow and East China Seas (between China, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula) and in Arctic sea ice.
“We need to treat it as a solid system that doesn’t absorb plastic, so we need to get to zero emissions and zero pollution as soon as possible,” Lindebjerg says.
WWF is calling for talks aimed at drafting an international agreement on plastics at the UN Environment Meeting, February 28 to March 2 in Nairobi.
It wants every treaty to lead to global production standards and true ‘recyclability’.
Trying to clean the oceans is “extremely difficult and extremely expensive,” Lindebjerg said, adding that it was better not to pollute in the first place.