The UN Environment Group passes a resolution on plastic pollution. Scientists fear it’s too late – Advice Eating

With world attention focused on the conflict in Ukraine, a landmark achievement by the United Nations slipped under the radar in early March. At the fifth session of the UN Environment Program in Nairobi, the global environmental authority addressed the issue of plastic. Recognizing that plastic pollution is out of control, the assembly passed a resolution to end plastic waste.

Given the shocking recent discoveries about the extent of plastic pollution on Earth, which has seeped into human blood vapour, has meant people have consumed a credit card’s worth every week and its microparticles in the ocean now outnumber zooplankton, the resolution reads certainly contemporary.

While the UN’s acknowledgment of the scale of the problem seems cause for celebration, it seems to have struck a chord with scientists.


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Delegations from 175 out of 193 member states approved the resolution in an overwhelming show of support, crowning the meeting. Contract negotiations begin on May 30 to create a legally binding international treaty to limit plastic waste by the end of 2024.

“The immense quantity and variety of both plastics and plastic chemicals, the combined weight of which exceeds the combined mass of all land and sea animals, is already presenting us with enormous challenges.”

The resolution, widely viewed as a historic victory for the environment and global health, prompted dire warnings from scientists. A letter from experts in various related fields, published in Science magazine, called for firm limits on plastic pollution.

“Despite industry intervention and objections from the United States and other delegations, reducing plastics at source by curbing production is critical,” the letter claimed, with its citations taking up almost as much space as its content. “The immense quantity and variety of both plastics and plastic chemicals, the combined weight of which exceeds the combined mass of all land and sea animals, is already presenting us with enormous challenges.”

The message, while succinct, was clear: avoiding plastic pollution means no more plastic.

Your fears are not without substance. The resolution placed a strong emphasis on downstream solutions that target pollution rather than its source, “to promote the sustainable production and consumption of plastics through, among other things, product design and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economic approaches .”

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The latter essentially describes the platonic ideal of the green economy, a circular system in which everything can be recycled or reused and nothing ends up in the environment – ​​a thoroughly laudable and lofty goal. As the UNEP Assembly noted, this would also require ending the illegal export of plastics and other waste from wealthier countries to the Global South.

“If we rely solely on these approaches, plastic production will not be reduced to the point where we don’t have an impact on the environment,” said Dr. Susane Brander opposite Salon.

Brander, an environmental toxicology expert who studies the effects of microplastics on gene expression at Oregon State University, was among the nine experts who authored the letter to Science journal.

“Even if all policy and technological solutions available today are applied, including substitution, improved recycling, waste management and circularity, annual plastic emissions into the environment can only be reduced by 79% over 20 years,” the letter reads. “To completely eliminate plastic pollution, the way forward must include phasing out virgin plastic production by 2040.”

Luckily, a 2021 study also published in Science by a whopping 30 authors did the heavy lifting to break down current solutions, challenges, and ways forward. In short, they found that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution” to keeping the 450 million tons of plastic that are currently produced each year out of the environment. Meanwhile, carbon emissions from the full life cycle of plastics are projected to increase from 4.5% to 10-13% of the total carbon budget by 2050.

“Solving the environmental, social and economic problems of plastic pollution and achieving near-zero plastic discharge into the environment will require significant commitments from businesses, governments and the international community to improve the global plastic system,” reads the concluding paragraph of read the study.

The study found that existing solutions, including recycling, reclamation and replacing plastics with alternatives, could only reduce annual plastic pollution to 17.3 million tons by 2040, hence the urgency of writing from scientists from Canada, Germany, India, Norway, Sweden and Turkey UK and USA

Brander found that the effects of plastic pollution range from stunted growth to infertility.

“It’s not unlike other types of pollutants like pesticides and runoff or industrial chemicals and runoff,” she explained. “They all contribute to some of the same problems, but plastics are unique in that they continue to degrade.”

“Further innovations are needed in resource-efficient and low-emission business models, reuse and refill systems, sustainable substitute materials, waste management technologies and effective government policies,” the report recommended. “Such an innovation could be funded by redirecting existing and future investments into virgin plastics infrastructure,”

Much is still unknown about the effects of heavy metal accumulation and health effects on humans, but what is known is enough to prompt drastic action. Brander’s own research examines various effects of this pollution on the endocrine systems of aquatic life. Brander found that the effects of plastic pollution range from stunted growth to infertility.

“It’s not unlike other types of pollutants like pesticides and runoff or industrial chemicals and runoff,” she explained. “They all contribute to some of the same problems, but plastics are unique in that they continue to degrade.”

This makes research into microplastics particularly difficult. Concentrations in the environment can be difficult to measure because they do not dissolve but decay while still remaining in the environment. As a result, today microplastics are found in the food we eat, the water we drink and accumulate in humans just as they do in other organisms.

“We already know that microplastics and plastic are in our food, at least three thousand different species that are known to ingest or get caught in plastic and microplastics, and now microplastics have been found in the human placenta, in the human lungs and Found a few months ago, a peer-reviewed study was conducted that found microplastics in human blood,” emphasized Dr. Tony Walker speaking to Salon.

If their effects on other organisms are any indication, the consequences for human health will be devastating. Walker, who specializes in remediation and pollution impacts at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, pointed out that currently only about 9% of the world’s recyclable waste is actually recycled.

“The only way to improve impact is to reduce our revenue,” said Dr. Tony Walker opposite Salon. “Even with the proposal for a circular economy, there is no other way around it. That still depends on having as much infrastructure in place to make sure you actually recover those plastics and don’t end up back into the environment like we see recycling.”

Maintaining plastic production and protecting the environment and human health are mutually exclusive. Finding out which plastics are toxic after they are later released into the environment and into our bodies does not ensure the safety of the public and, according to the team of scientists, is even impossible.

It is the ubiquitous nature of microscopic particles that has led to the current urgency of controlling plastic pollution. A decade ago, international cooperation would have been nearly impossible. How they will actually achieve such a task remains to be seen, but scientists fear the negotiations are doomed to repeat the failure of the Paris Agreement, which failed to effectively persuade UN member states to make decisive cuts in CO2 emissions committed by Scientists and the UN were recommended the IPCC’s own reports.

“There is no reason not to act, even if the phasing out of the use of virgin plastic must of course take place gradually,” said Brander openly. “I have a hard time seeing an argument for a wait-and-see approach like we’ve done with so many other chemicals.”

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