Plastic litter could triple and outweigh fish in the world's oceans by 2040: report

Oceans pollution could balloon to 700 million tonnes by 2040, warns the Environmental Investigation Agency, as it pushes for a global treaty to curb plastic waste. Companies, including top polluters Coke and Unilever, echo the call.

Fish in Great Pacific Garbage Patch
A fish finds a home in a discarded VHS tape sleeve as it drifts through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch is a soupy mix of plastics and microplastics, now twice the size of Texas, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. Image: Justin Hoffman/ Greenpeace

Plastic pollution will outweigh the fish in the world’s oceans in the coming decades, revealed a study that called for a global plastics treaty to stem the tide of the world’s pollution.

The report by United Kingdom-based non-governmental organisation Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) comes weeks before the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya, where member states are set to negotiate a treaty on plastic pollution on a global scale.

There are around 700 million tonnes of fish in the ocean, but by 2025, there will be an estimated 250 million tonnes of plastic in the sea, according to the report titled Connecting the dots: Plastic pollution and the planetary emergency.

Plastics could increase to about 700 million tonnes by 2040, and by mid-century, marine litter will likely far exceed the weight of all fish in every ocean on earth, said the agency, which investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse.

“There is a deadly ticking clock counting swiftly down,” said Tom Gammage, EIA’s oceans campaigner and lead author of the report. “The air we breathe now contains plastic micro particles, there’s plastic in Arctic snow, plastic in soils and plastic in our food.”

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has identified climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution as three “existential environmental threats”. Pollution is the only pillar that lacks a policy from UN member states to curb the waste crisis. The UN has had dedicated multilateral environmental agreements to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss for nearly three decades. 

In November last year, there was no discussion at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP) about plastic waste despite the established connection between its production and related greenhouse gas emissions, the study said.

Over half of plastic leakage into the oceans could come from just five Asian countries, but its drivers and impacts are inherently transboundary and a lack of coordinated, determined global action will mean the wave of pollution will continue unabated.

Tom Gammage, ocean campaigner, Environmental Investigations Agency

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15 will convene later this year to negotiate the future biodiversity agenda, one of the targets of which is to eliminate plastic waste discharges, although “it is unclear how this will be achieved,” the study said. 

In 2019, when the UNEA last gathered in Nairobi, talks about plastic waste were stymied primarily by the United States and some industry, which opposed a binding treaty. 

Leading companies, including some of the world’s biggest marine polluters, have now called for countries to begin negotiations on a comprehensive, legally binding treaty on the management of plastic in a statement released on 17 January.

A treaty could help to cut the hundreds of contradictory policies, inconsistencies, and opacity that are embedded in the global plastics trade that make it hard to stem the growing accumulation of plastic waste. The lack of rules around how plastic is mixed creates even more difficulty for recyclers. 

Consumer goods giants Coca-Cola and Unilever, which emerged in the top three of global plastic polluters in an annual audit of plastic debris found on coastal areas last year, were two of the 70 signatories asking the UN for a global agreement. They ask that a legally binding treaty helps to reduce virgin plastic production and use and that it aligns regulatory measures that cover the whole life cycle of plastics. 

“The damage done by rampant overproduction of virgin plastics and their lifecycle is irreversible. This is a threat to human civilisation and the planet’s basic ability to maintain a habitable environment,” Gammage said.

Unchecked plastic tide poses risk to Asia Pacific 

Asia, where around half of virgin plastics production takes place, is most at risk for inaction on plastic, said EIA’s Gammage. 

“Over half of plastic leakage into the oceans could come from just five Asian countries (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand), but its drivers and impacts are inherently transboundary and a lack of coordinated, determined global action will mean the wave of pollution will continue unabated,” Gammage told Eco-Business.

Creating plastics also involves the burning of large quantities of fossil fuels to provide for the high energy demands of industrial processes, Gammage wrote in the report. 

The location and extraction of oil and gas are likely to happen in more species-rich places, which is a cause for concern given that the Asia Pacific region contains some of the highest levels of biodiversity globally, said the EIA study.

Asia is predicted to see 60 per cent of global gas demand growth over the next three decades, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie. The largest increase is expected in emerging markets across South and Southeast Asia. 

The EIA report added that only nine per cent of plastic waste ever produced has been recycled, with an estimated 79 per cent of all plastic waste ever created ending up in the open environment or in landfill. These plastics are leaking methane, a powerful climate pollutant, directly into the atmosphere.

Fragile, biodiverse and important ecosystems which play a role in regulating the climate and mitigating the impact of global warming such as adverse weather, are most at risk if a deal to tackle plastic waste is not struck, the study suggested.

Indonesia, the world’s second largest marine plastic polluter after China, has one of the greatest diversity of coral reef in the world, helping to support one of the largest marine fisheries globally.

Plastic-clogged Philippines, part of the coral triangle with more species of fish and corals than any other marine environment, ranks as the world’s third biggest polluter.

A global treaty on plastics could set out a legally binding commitment to eliminate plastic pollution leakage, especially into oceans. This is crucial for the protection of delicate ecosystems, the EIA said. 

“Coral reefs have been deemed 85 per cent more likely to develop disease in the presence of plastic,” according to the EIA. “These are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, critical in mitigating future climate-related extreme weather events and providing food and resources for at least 500 million people.”

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