Over the past year, plastic has commanded the attention of politicians, scientists, businesses, and the wider public like never before. The Plastic Oceans Foundation, with its film A Plastic Ocean (which has been shown in more than 60 countries), has been at the forefront of putting the issue on the public’s agenda over the past decade. A tipping point was reached in the UK following the success of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, which was one of the most watched television series in 2017. In the final episode, Sir David Attenborough’s (who has been heavily inspired by the work of the Plastic Oceans Foundation) vivid commentary on the scale and extent of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans brought home to viewers the need for urgent action. Many people in the UK now want a new relationship with plastic. The Government is committed to eliminating all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042 as part of its 25 Year Environment Plan. Meanwhile, other governments and companies around the world are looking to the UK to show what can be done to address the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
The first plastics emerged in the early 19th Century, but industrial scale production did not begin until the 1930s. By the 1950s, ‘throwaway’ plastic was being lauded as a way to relieve people from domestic chores such as washing up the dishes. Plastics have since become part of almost every facet of everyday life in much of the world, from helping to keep food fresh, to acting as a substitute for wood and other natural resources, to important medical applications that save lives every day. The genius of plastic is that it comes in many forms and so can be used in a variety of different ways. Global plastic production has rocketed from around eight million tonnes in 1961, to 330 million tonnes in 2017.
The problem with plastic, though, is that the very quality that makes it so useful – it’s relative indestructability – is what makes it so hard to dispose of. No one really knows how long it takes for plastic to break down. The evidence we do have suggests that it just keeps breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces.
That is why the eight million tonnes of plastic waste that ends up in the world’s oceans
(around 80% is from land-based sources) every year is proving hazardous. Seals, birds, and other larger animals that feed in the oceans are either becoming entangled in waste plastic, or mistakenly ingesting it. Organisms at the bottom of the marine food chain, including zooplankton such as copepods, are consuming even smaller pieces of plastic known as micro-plastics (<5mm) and nano-plastics (50µm-5mm). This uptake of plastic could be cause of concern because of the potentially harmful effects of chemicals (such as plasticisers) that have been added to the plastic. There is also some evidence to suggest that plastic particles attract and capture other persistent organic pollutants, which may then, likewise, enter the food chain. These toxins could concentrate higher up the food chain, with potential implications for human health. However, a lot more evidence is needed to prove such links.
It is not yet known how widespread plastic pollution is in the oceans, although plastic particles have been found in the deepest part of the sea and in the remotest waters. However, there is a discrepancy between the amount of plastic waste that is thought to be going into the oceans and the amount that has been discovered (only around 1%). This has led some scientists to produce the wide-ranging estimate that there could be between 15 to 51 trillion particles of ‘small’ plastic floating on the ocean surface. The rest may have settled on the sea floor or already been taken-up by marine life. What is known though is that the great ocean gyres in the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean, which keep the oceans circulating, are gathering up some of the plastic waste into great ‘garbage patches’, while driving the remainder as far as the remotest waters of the planet.
The Indian Ocean gyre, for example, is thought to be responsible for pushing waste plastic pre-production pellets (essentially raw plastic) into what were previously believed to be the ‘pristine’ waters around Antarctica. When scientists opened up the stomachs of a hundred Shearwater chicks on Trefoil Island off Tasmania, plastic pellets were found in all of them, most likely collected from Antarctic waters.
Further evidence of plastic pollution in the Southern Ocean has been collected by the British Antarctic Survey over the past forty years. BAS scientists surveying three sites (Bird Island, King Edward Point on South Georgia, and Signy Island, which is part of the South Orkneys) found plastic waste from fishing vessels, as well as consumer products, washed up on beaches every year. This has had a discernible impact on wildlife with Antarctic fur seals, for example, becoming entangled in old packaging bands, fishing line, and nets. Seabirds, particularly, wandering, black-browed, and grey-headed albatrosses can also mistake plastic floating on the ocean surface (including plastic bags, bottle tops, and squid jigs) for food, which they collect while out foraging and bring back to feed to their chicks.
Meanwhile, the scale of micro-plastic pollution in the Southern Ocean has only recently become apparent, with scientists finding that micro-plastic levels are five orders of magnitude higher than predicted.
Plastic pollution is also widespread in the Arctic. The Tara Oceans Expedition (2009-2014) and the Malaspina Expedition (2010) both reported that floating plastic waste in the North Atlantic (originating mostly from northwest Europe and the east coast of North America) was being carried up to the Arctic, with the largest concentrations emerging in the waters east of Greenland and in the Barents Sea. These findings gave confidence to models developed by ocean physicists that project how plastic pollution is transported around the world’s oceans. Worryingly, these same models suggest that it will not be long before an Arctic ‘garbage patch’ begins to form, most likely in the Barents Sea.
Further evidence of plastic waste in the Arctic comes from ice cores taken from areas of seasonal ice melt (i.e. where the ice is only a year-old). Plastic has also been found during limited expeditions to the Arctic Ocean seafloor, where 60% of debris encountered was plastic.
The plastic pollution crisis is still unfolding and there is still much scientific work to be done to determine its scale, extent, and implications for both marine ecosystems and human health. This will require increased monitoring of the polar oceans, as well as the standardisation of scientific protocols internationally. Likewise, it is not yet clear how the potential hazards posed by plastic waste in the oceans are likely to affect people.
Nevertheless, the insurance sector is already concerned that a crisis is in the making. As scientific understanding grows, so too does the exposure of companies that work with plastics, which may eventually become liable for the impacts of plastic pollution on human health (as has resulted from other human health crises relating to smoking and exposure to asbestos) Here, the insurance sector’s approach to developing and implementing regulations for polar shipping could provide a useful model. The Arctic Shipping Best Practices Information Forum, recently launched in London to help companies meet the requirements of the International Maritime Organisation’s Polar Code, was built on three principles: ensure regulations are fit for purpose, promote awareness of risks and regulations, push industry to work collectively to develop and share best practice, as well as go beyond regulation where and if possible. The aim is to create the correct behavioural approach whereby businesses are rewarded rather than punished for following best practice.
Both for industry and more widely, the Arctic Council has the potential to play a key role in raising international awareness about the problems of plastic pollution. That much is evident from its past record on climate change (the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment was world-leading), and more recently, its support for the Arctic Shipping Best Practices Information Forum. The Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group has recently embarked on project to assess issues relating to marine litter in the Arctic (including plastic and micro-plastic litter), which will hopefully raise further awareness of the extent of plastic pollution and its impacts in the Arctic Ocean.
Around 50% of all plastic waste comes in the form of packaging, most of which is mis-managed. It is also the most short-lived, sometimes only used for a matter of minutes before being thrown away. The problem of plastic waste was already on the agenda of UK retailers even before the explosion of interest that followed Blue Planet II. However, they have been caught out by the scale of the public response in recent months. For example, Marks & Spencer’s plan to meet its zero waste goals by 2025 now looks too slow. Iceland has put pressure on all the other supermarkets by committing to phasing out all plastic packaging in its own brand products within five years. The vast majority of consumers, even those who do not typically take much interest in environmental issues, are also pressing retailers to make it simpler to either avoid or recycle plastic (only around 25% of plastic currently in use is easy to recycle). This is going to make it much harder for retailers to justify their use of plastics.
The need to address plastic waste poses a particular problem for businesses because it goes to the core of how they make, market and transport trillions of products. Packaging, in particular, is an essential part of how a business brands and differentiates itself from competitors and so new solutions are needed. In the meantime, though, several actions have been suggested:
There is no easy answer to the problem of plastic pollution in the polar regions, or the world’s oceans more broadly. More research and monitoring is needed to understand the scale and the extent of the problem, as well as its impacts on marine ecosystems and human health. Industry needs to work collectively to reduce and simplify plastic waste so that more of it remains within the economy. There is a commercial opportunity here too – if the UK can lead the way in developing a new plastic/circular economy, it will likely have tremendous export value around the world. Governments working nationally and internationally have a role to play in collaborating with science and industry to develop legislation that can be implemented, to maintain a level playing field, to promote best practice, and generally raise global awareness of the issues surrounding plastic pollution.
On a final note, while the UK’s contribution to plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is dwarfed by that of several other nations, that does not mean that action taken here is insignificant. There is strong scientific evidence that plastic waste that ends up in the seas around the British Isles is being transported to the Arctic. While reducing plastic waste in the UK might not save the world’s oceans from plastic, it will make a meaningful difference in the Arctic.
This paper was prepared by Dr Duncan Depledge (Director, APPG for the Polar Regions Secretariat), and endorsed by James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions).
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This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.