Scientists Say It’s Time to Phase Out Plastics to Stop Sea of Pollution

Plastic pollution at the beach of Costa del Este in Panama City
Plastic pollution at the beach of Costa del Este in Panama City, on April 19, 2021. LUIS ACOSTA / AFP via Getty Images

An international team of scientists wrote a letter to the journal Science recently asserting that recycling is not a long-term solution to the growing sea of plastics polluting our soil, river, oceans, the air we breathe and even our bloodstreams and lungs. The scientists argued that the production of plastics must not only be regulated, but capped and phased out in the long term.

“Even if we recycled better and tried to manage the waste as much as we can, we would still release more than 17 million tons of plastic per year into nature,” said the letter’s initiator Melanie Bergmann of the German Alfred-Wegener-Institute, as reported by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). “If production just keeps growing and growing, we will be faced with a truly Sisyphean task.”

Earlier this year at the United Nations (UN) Environment Assembly in Nairobi, leaders and representatives from 175 countries decided to adopt a global treaty to end plastic pollution, according to the UN website. The goal is to put together a draft of a legally-binding agreement by the end of 2024. Negotiations are set to begin May 30, reported NTNU.

“Today, no area of the planet is left untouched by plastic pollution, from deep sea sediment, to Mount Everest,” said Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina J. Mohammed, who is the chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group, the UN website stated. “The planet deserves a truly multilateral solution to this scourge that affects us all. An agreement that speaks from source to sea.”

A study published in Science in 2020 found that, in order to reduce plastic pollution by 79 percent over the next 20 years, all available solutions would have to be put into practice, including swapping plastics for alternatives that are more sustainable and improving waste management and recycling, reported

“The exponentially growing production is really the root cause of the problem, and the amounts of plastics we have produced thus far have already exceeded planetary boundaries,” said Bethanie Carney Almroth of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, who was co-author of the letter, as reported. “If we don’t tackle that, all other measures will fail to achieve the goal of substantially reducing the release of plastic into the environment.”

According to the UN Environment Programme, there is even a new marine microbial habitat: the “plastisphere.”

Since plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, we have an enormous task ahead to deal with the plastic that already exists.

“Because plastic lasts for so long, every single piece of plastic ever made still exists, and will continue existing for at least 500 years. To put that in context, if Leonardo da Vinci had drunk water from a plastic bottle when he was painting the Mona Lisa, that bottle would not have fully decomposed yet,” the Greenpeace website said.

According to the scientists, there are important pluses for the environment and society if we progressively reduce new plastic production.

“We gain a lot of benefits from plastics but reducing production will increase the value of plastics, boost other measures to curb plastic pollution, help tackle climate change and promote our transition to a circular and sustainable economy,” said biologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Martin Wagner, as NTNU reported.

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