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Push to end plastic pollution to continue on World Environment Day

Plastic pollution has figured high this year to be the main theme of both the Earth Day on April 22 and the World Environment Day on June 5.

The World Environment Day will be under the theme of "Beat Plastic Pollution"

Companies and governments around the world continue to announce new pledges to tackle plastic waste.

Earth Day Network, which leads the annual event across the globe, has centered this year’s efforts on a multi-year campaign, End Plastic Pollution. Its goals include stopping single-use plastic products, pushing alternatives to materials based off fossil fuels and advocating for 100% of plastics to be recycled. Plastic disposal creates water and wildlife pollution, and plastic in food can cause life-threatening diseases, according to the network.

A new study has revealed that human activities are affecting the deepest part of the ocean, more than 1,000 kilometers from the mainland.

Plastic pollution is emerging as one of the most serious threats to ocean ecosystems. World leaders, scientists and communities recognize the urgent need for action, but the impacts of plastic pollution are not well understood.

To raise awareness of the far-reaching effects of plastic pollution, ocean scientists - including those from UN Environment's World Conservation Monitoring Center - crunched numbers from the Deep-sea Debris Database. The Global Oceanographic Data Center of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology launched this database for public use in 2017. It contains over 30 years of photos and videos of debris that have been collected by deep-sea submersibles and remotely operated vehicles.

The data revealed that, from 5,010 dives, more than 3,000 pieces of manmade debris – including plastic, metal, rubber and fishing gear – were counted. Over a third of debris found was macro-plastic, 89% of which was single-use products. In areas deeper than 6000m, over half of debris was plastic, almost all of which was single-use.

The study – Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris - also reveals that single-use plastic has reached the world’s deepest ocean trench - a plastic bag was found in the Mariana Trench, 10,898m below the surface.

The ubiquitous distribution of single-use plastic, even to the greatest depths of the ocean, reveal a clear link between daily human activities and the remotest of environments.

Once in the deep-sea, plastic can persist for thousands of years. Deep-sea ecosystems are highly endemic and have a very slow growth rate, so the potential threats from plastic pollution are concerning. There is growing concern that deep-sea ecosystems are already being damaged by direct exploitation of both biological and non-biological resources – through deep-sea trawling, mining and infrastructure development, for example. The results of this study show that deep-sea ecosystems are also being affected indirectly by human activities.

Reducing the production of plastic waste seems to be the only solution to the problem of deep-sea plastic pollution. A global monitoring network is needed to share the limited data on deep-sea plastic pollution, and impact assessment surveys should be prioritized for biologically and ecologically important areas with high concentrations of plastic debris, and to use ocean circulation models to identify how plastic is traveling from land to the deep-sea.

The millions of tons of plastic swirling around the world’s oceans have garnered a lot of media attention recently. But plastic pollution arguably poses a bigger threat to the plants and animals – including humans – who are based on land.

Very little of the plastic discarded every day is recycled or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities. Much of it ends up in landfills, where it may take up to 1,000 years to decompose, leaching potentially toxic substances into the soil and water.

Researchers in Germany are warning that the impact of microplastics in soils, sediments and freshwater could have a long-term negative effect on such ecosystems. They say terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution – estimated at four to 23 times higher, depending on the environment.

The researchers conclude that, although little research has been carried out in this area, the results to date are concerning: fragments of plastic are present practically all over the world and can trigger many kinds of adverse effects.

The study estimates that one third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater. Most of this plastic disintegrates into particles smaller than five millimeters, known as microplastics, and these break down further into nanoparticles (less than 0.1 micrometer in size). The problem is that these particles are entering the food chain.

Sewage is an important factor in the distribution of microplastics. In fact, between 80 percent and 90 percent of the plastic particles contained in sewage, such as from garment fibers, persist in the sludge, says the study. Sewage sludge is often applied to fields as fertilizer, meaning that several thousand tons of microplastics end up in our soils each year. Microplastics can even be found in tap water.

Moreover, the surfaces of tiny fragments of plastic may carry disease-causing organisms and act as a vector for diseases in the environment.

Microplastics can also interact with soil fauna, affecting their health and soil functions.

“Earthworms, for example, make their burrows differently when microplastics are present in the soil, affecting the earthworm's fitness and the soil condition,” says an article in Science Daily about the research.

Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources, and also the ecosystem. This can cause a range of potentially harmful effects on the species that drink the water.

Generally speaking, when plastic particles break down, they gain new physical and chemical properties, increasing the risk that they will have a toxic effect on organisms. And the larger the number of potentially affected species and ecological functions, the more likely it is that toxic effects will occur.

Chemical effects are especially problematic at the decomposition stage. Additives such as phthalates and Bisphenol A (widely known as BPA) leach out of plastic particles. These additives are known for their hormonal effects and can disrupt the hormone system of vertebrates and invertebrates alike. In addition, nano-sized particles may cause inflammation, traverse cellular barriers, and even cross highly selective membranes such as the blood-brain barrier or the placenta. Within the cell, they can trigger changes in gene expression and biochemical reactions, among other things.

The long-term effects of these changes have not yet been sufficiently explored. “However, it has already been shown that when passing the blood-brain barrier nanoplastics have a behavior-changing effect in fish,” according to the Leibnitz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries.

One of the main sources is our clothing. Minuscule fibers of acrylic, nylon, spandex, and polyester are shed each time we wash our clothes and are carried off to wastewater treatment plants or discharged to the open environment.

According to a recent study cited by Water World more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers could be released into the environment during each cycle of a washing machine. This has not yet been studied in the case of handwashing, which is more common in developing counties, but the effects could be significant there as well.

A study in 2016 commissioned by clothing company Patagonia and conducted by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that washing a single synthetic jacket just once released an average of 1.7 grams of microfibres.

Microbeads are solid plastic particles that typically range from 10 micrometers (0.00039 inches) up to one millimeter (0.039 inches).

Numerous countries around the world have introduced legislation to ban the manufacture of cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads. Such laws have already been passed in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

A Global Symposium on Soil Pollution will be held from 2-4 May at the Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome and is expected to be attended by 500 to 700 participants.

Plastics and microplastics will be discussed under the category of “Chemicals of Emerging Concern”. Other examples of such chemicals are hormones, endocrine disruptors and pharmaceuticals. UN Environment is one of several co-organizers of the Symposium.

The world is uniting against plastic waste in view of shocking images of marine life ensnared in plastic litter and alarms set off by scientific studies in this regard.

The Church of England suggested giving up plastic for Lent. Companies are finding a market for innovative edible bioplastics. Government after government were seen simply banning disposable plastics. To catalyze this change, campaigns like #BeatPlasticPollution are taking center stage on World Environment Day and Earth Day in an effort to fundamentally alter our plastic habits. 

In the Asia and Pacific region, four entrepreneurs have taken the challenge upon themselves to fix the problem as part of UN Environment’s Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge. The Challenge aims to mobilize and support young people with business ideas on how to foster energy-efficient, low-waste, and low-carbon lifestyles. From over 180 applications from young entrepreneurs, four were selected to win $10,000 in seed funding, as well as intensive business, sustainability and communications training. 

Collectively, their four ventures follow the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. They are on a mission to show that business can cash in on going plastic free.

 Serving this end, David Katz has founded the Plastic Bank which is a company that aims to stop plastic pollution by turning waste into currency.

The main goal of the bank is to monetize waste. To create a globally recognizable, tradeable currency for the planet.

Katz said "We need to eliminate the word waste, waste pickers, those things. We are creating an ecosystem that will ignite a social plastic revolution, that unites and enrolls humanity for local action that creates global impact."

In areas with official stores, collectors can turn in plastic waste and receive cash or credit to an online account, which can then be used to purchase everything from insurance and phones to cooking fuel and stoves.

He added " It’s estimated that there are over 150 million tons of plastic in the ocean, with a garbage truck of plastic entering the ocean every minute. There isn’t a single solution, and I think it's important to communicate that we need an army of people to solve this issue. What makes us unique is that we recognize the value in the 8.3 trillion kilos of plastic that's ever been produced, almost all of it still here as waste. It’s difficult to estimate, but well under 500 billion could alleviate all forms of poverty around the world. And if we take that 8.3 trillion kilos of plastic at roughly 50 cents per kilo, we're unleashing a 4 trillion-dollar market opportunity for the world."

"We give plastic value by using it as money. Our collection centers accept it as a currency in return for goods and services, and we sell that as a raw material into manufacturing, closing the loop in the circular economy. I like to talk about this parable of acres of diamonds. If you're walking over diamonds, and there's no bank, no store, nothing you can do with them, they stay on the ground as rocks. We give value to plastic and get if off the ground by accepting it as a form of currency. Once we do that it's not litter. It's cash. No one throws cash on the ground," he said.

"Our model works because we don't differ from the traditional recycling industry. In fact, we want to be world’s largest recycling company. What makes us unique is we're recycling for the masses, cutting out the middleman and ensuring the poor make the most. Additionally, when plastic is of value and being collected, it’s easier to recycle, because it doesn't collect the waste and degrade like it traditionally would sitting in the canals or entering the ocean and floating back to shore," he said.

"There is demand for our product because we have our own category, Social Plastic, which is certified to have been contributed or sourced directly from the Plastic Bank. We’ve already partnered with several companies; Marks & Spencer, Henkel, Shell. Our customers are most enlivened by knowing that it is not just recycled material. That it's a material with value that is transferred through lives," he said.

"Additionally, we are a for-profit business. We are focused on profitability and providing our product at the lowest possible cost, period. Non-profits deplete money as slowly as possible. For-profits multiply the same pool of money as quickly as possible. It’s been proven that for-profit has the greatest opportunity for impact. Both good and bad, by the way. But put to the force of good, it's unlimited," he expounded.

"We’ve been operating successfully in Haiti since 2015, and even have collection locations in schools so people can pay for their tuition directly. We expanded to the Philippines in 2016 and one of our global partners, Shell Energy, has a thousand stores at gas stations in the country that now also function as Plastic Bank collection locations. Staff have been hired for an expansion into Brazil and a philanthropist is sponsoring our entry into Indonesia. Plans are also in the works for Ethiopia and the horn of Africa, as well as India. We’re growing exponentially," he said.

"We probably get ten to twenty requests a day from people around the world asking for us to come into their community. There is a strong demand because we are a conduit for change. We’ve created an application so that anyone in the world can create their own recycling infrastructure wherever they are. They just need a collector, a redemption location, a collection location, a recycler, and a courier. Five simple easy components to create. We just need to oversee a few things and have someone in the country to authenticate the social nature, making sure children are not employed and things like that. But we provide a very simple way for anyone in the world to create a social plastic ecosystem," he said.

 


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