Plastic planet: How ocean waste has 'changed earth forever'

·6 min read
New research has revealed the plastic in our oceans may have changed the planet forever. (Getty Images)
New research has revealed the plastic in our oceans may have changed the planet forever. (Getty Images)

We all know that plastic = bad. But do we realise quite how bad? The plastic in our oceans may have changed the planet forever, new research has suggested.

According to a new study, the impact of plastic on the environment has now reached a tipping point, triggering effects we will not be able to reverse.

With recycling schemes failing to stem the tide, scientists say capping production and banning waste exports is our last chance to improve the plastic situation. 

The study, published in the journal Science, found the pollution threat is getting worse despite better public awareness.

"Plastic is deeply ingrained in our society and leaks into the environment everywhere - even in countries with good waste-handling infrastructure," explains lead author Professor Matthew MacLeod, from the University of Stockholm.

Read more: A plastic-free period is possible: Here’s how

As of 2016, estimates of global emissions to the world's lakes, rivers and oceans ranged from nine to 23 million metric tons a year, with the same amount also being dumped on land.

But quantities are expected to almost double by 2025, if typical scenarios continue to apply.

Experts say plastic pollution has reached a tipping point - triggering effects we will not be able to reverse. (Getty Images)
Experts say plastic pollution has reached a tipping point - triggering effects we will not be able to reverse. (Getty Images)

Authors say that plastic pollution is not just an environmental issue but also a "political and economic" one and as the solutions currently on offer, such as recycling and cleanup technologies, are not sufficient, we must tackle the problem at its root.

"The world promotes technological solutions for recycling and to remove plastic from the environment," Co-author Mine Tekman, a PhD candidate at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Bremerhaven, Germany, explains. 

"As consumers, we believe when we properly separate our plastic trash, all of it will magically be recycled.

"But technologically, recycling of plastic has many limitations, and countries that have good infrastructures have been exporting their plastic waste to countries with worse facilities.

"Reducing emissions requires drastic actions, like capping the production of virgin plastic to increase the value of recycled plastic, and banning export of plastic waste unless it is to a country with better recycling."

Plastic accumulates in the environment when amounts emitted exceed those that are removed by cleanup initiatives and natural environmental processes, which occurs by a multi-step process known as weathering.

"Weathering of plastic happens because of many different processes, and we have come a long way in understanding them," explains co-author Prof Hans Peter Arp, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

"But weathering is constantly changing the properties of plastic pollution, which opens new doors to more questions.

"Degradation is very slow and not effective in stopping accumulation, so exposure to weathered plastic will only increase."

Read more: Injured birds and clogged up rivers: Why you should think twice before using a disposable face mask

He describes plastic as a "poorly reversible pollutant", both because of its continuous emissions and environmental persistence.

And remote, previously untouched areas, such as the polar regions are most vulnerable.

"In remote environments, plastic debris cannot be removed by cleanups," explains study co-author Prof Annika Jahnke, of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, explained:.

"Weathering of large plastic items will inevitably result in the generation of large numbers of micro and nano-plastic particles as well as leaching of chemicals intentionally added and other chemicals that break off the plastic polymer backbone.

"So, plastic in the environment is a constantly moving target of increasing complexity and mobility. Where it accumulates and what effects it may cause are challenging or maybe even impossible to predict."

The authors believe the plastic threat may trigger global impacts that can't be reversed, and hope taking all the findings together will provide "compelling motivation" for specific actions to reduce emissions. 

"Right now, we are loading up the environment with increasing amounts of poorly-reversible plastic pollution," Prof MacLeod adds.

"So far, we don't see the widespread evidence of consequences, but if weathering plastic triggers a really bad effect we are not likely to be able to reverse it.

"The cost of ignoring the accumulation of persistent plastic pollution in the environment could be enormous.

"The rational thing to do is to act as quickly as we can to reduce emissions of plastic to the environment."

Watch: Passing divers rescue sea turtle tangled in floating pile of plastic rubbish. 

Last year a British study published in the same journal found 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic is destined for the environment - both on land and in the ocean - by 2040.

The finding by the University of Leeds was based on a global model of the scale of the plastic problem over the next two decades.

Another recent study by the University of Plymouth found a staggering 700 different species are threatened by plastic pollution - many of which are already currently endangered.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace urged the UK government to ban the export of plastic waste to all countries by 2025, invest in a domestic recycling industry and set a binding target for plastic reduction.

It also revealed how plastic waste from seven major UK supermarkets was being burned and dumped in Turkey rather than being recycled. 

The research follows a further study last month which revealed half of the plastic rubbish littering the world’s oceans is from takeaway food and drink packaging.

Scientists at the University of Cádiz found single-use bags, plastic bottles, food containers and food wrappers are the four most widespread items polluting the seas and accumulating along shorelines and near-shore waters.

Just 10 plastic products, also including plastic lids and fishing gear, accounted for three-quarters of the litter, due to their extensive use and slow degradation.

The results from the study led to scientists calling for a ban on some common throwaway items and for producers behind the items to take more responsibly.

Read more: How to quit plastic: 6 simple switches you can make today

Plastic pollution poses a huge threat to the environment. (Getty Images)
Plastic pollution poses a huge threat to the environment. (Getty Images)

It came after warnings were previously issued that plastic contamination could soon be “catastrophic” for human health.

Experts say that if we don’t get our act together when it comes to plastic pollution it could signal the end of the human race.

Seawater samples collected throughout a 45,000 mile journey on the Volvo Ocean race round-the-world sailing event have revealed traces of microplastics almost everywhere, including in the remotest waters in the Southern Ocean.

It was also previously revealed that humans could be consuming up to 52,000 microplastic particles a year.

Research, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found microplastics present in the air, soil, rivers and oceans make their way into human bodies.

The report, which was compiled using data from a series of studies, estimated that humans consume between 39,000 and 52,000 particles each a year.

Now wonder experts say that if we don’t get our act together when it comes to plastic pollution, it could signal not just the end of endangered species - it could ultimately be the end of the human race, too.

Additional reporting SWNS.

Watch: Meet the grandmother who is saving the planet. 

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