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Ocean Plastic Projected to Triple Within Seven Years

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Marine debris laden beach in Hawaii. NOAA Marine Debris Program / Flickr

If we don't act now, plastic pollution in the world's oceans is projected to increase three-fold within seven years, according to a startling new report.

The Future of the Sea report, released Wednesday for the UK government, found that human beings across the globe produce more than 300 million metric tons of plastic per year. Unfortunately, a lot of that material ends up in our waters, with the total amount of plastic debris in the sea predicted to increase from 50 million metric tons in 2015 to 150 million metric tons by 2025.


Roughly 70 percent of all marine litter is plastic, and the effect of this non-biodegradable waste can be devastating for marine biodiversity.

"There is extensive evidence that entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastics can cause injury and death to a wide range of marine organisms, including commercially important fish and shellfish," the report says.

The report also warns about the prevalence of microplastics and other tiny plastic debris in the ocean. "Plastic does not decompose, instead breaking down into ever smaller pieces," it states. "The full effects are not understood, but there is growing evidence of plastic harming sea creatures and restricting their movement, as well as polluting beaches."

The report was written by scientists to brief government officials on medium and long-term issues of significance, according to BBC News. They warned about the danger of our oceans being "out of sight, out of mind," and pointed out that more is known about space than our seas.

"The ocean is critical to our economic future. Nine billion people will be looking to the ocean for more food. Yet we know so little of what's down there," author Edward Hill from the UK National Oceanography Centre explained to BBC News.

"We invest a lot of money and enthusiasm for missions to space—but there's nothing living out there. The sea bed is teeming with life. We really need a mission to planet ocean—it's the last frontier."

"The ocean is out of sight, out of mind," added Ian Boyd, the chief scientist for the UK government's environment department and another author of the report.

"There's a continuous process of exploring for new things to exploit in the oceans, and that's happening faster than we scientists can keep up with," Boyd said. "My suspicion is legislation is also struggling to keep up—and obviously there are risks in that."

Plastic pollution can also impact human health and wellbeing. Citing a recent EU-wide survey, the Future of the Sea report noted that more than 70 percent of visitors noticed litter on either most or every visit to the coast.

"Coastal plastic litter can also increase the risk of bacterial pathogens such as E. coli," it states.

"Other kinds of pollution pose direct and indirect, via seafood, risks to human health. Marine pollution may also have direct effects on human health, with the consumption of seafood potentially leading to ingestion of hazardous chemicals that have accumulated in the food chain."

To solve this plastic epidemic, the authors suggested solutions that range from preventing plastic from entering the sea, introducing new biodegradable plastics, and campaigns that raise public awareness about marine protection.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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