Why we need to fix the plastic pollution problem


Marine litter and plastic pollution endangers aquatic life, threatens human health and results in myriad hidden costs for the economy. Such a global threat requires a global response, and the upcoming United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is an important stage for governments and policymakers to catalyse change.

At the resumed fifth session of UNEA – held virtually and in-person in Nairobi between February and March – world leaders will focus on plastics and deliberate on proposals with the aim of establishing an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee INC to work towards a legally binding global agreement.

Marine litter and plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems’ ability to adapt to the climate crisis, according to UNEP’s From Pollution to Solution report. This affects millions of people’s livelihoods, food security and social well-being. Urgent, multilateral action is needed to identify where plastic waste enters waterways and how to put in place ‘prevention’ incentives to minimise this occurrence.

In North America, through the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative, UNEP engages citizen science by working with thousands of community volunteers to track upstream and coastal plastic pollution data along the Mississippi River. This data is collected using a free, open-source mobile app called the Marine Debris Tracker.

In South-East Asia, UNEP’s CounterMEASURE project identifies sources and pathways of plastic pollution in river systems, particularly the Mekong and the Ganges. With the use of technologies and innovative approaches like GIS, machine learning and drones, the project has developed plastic leakage models for localities in six countries that can be scaled and replicated across continents.

To highlight the scale of the issue, UNEP has prepared a plastics exhibit in Nairobi for UNEA. The exhibit presents visitors with a visual representation of key data related to the plastic pollution problem by using plastic waste collected on the Kenyan coast.

UNEP’s body of work demonstrates that the problem of plastic pollution doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The environmental, social, economic and health risks of plastics need to be assessed alongside other environmental stressors, like climate change, ecosystem degradation and resource use.

Identifying where plastic emissions are coming from really matters for how we tackle it. Rich countries emit very little – this means domestic strategies to reduce plastics in these countries will not make much difference to ocean plastics.

What rich countries can do is support low-to-middle income countries in improving waste management infrastructure - it’s key to tackling plastic pollution. And, importantly, they can ban the export of any plastics to other countries where it could be mismanaged.

Understanding the distribution of emissions across the world’s rivers is also crucial. Our strategy for tackling this problem is vastly different if we only must focus on a few or even tens of the world’s largest rivers (as previous studies suggested) versus thousands of smaller ones. 

To stop plastic pollution in our oceans we need a global approach to reducing plastic waste and managing it appropriately to stop it leaking into the natural environment. Focusing on a few rivers will not be enough.

By John Martin

Keywords: Ecosystems, Emerging Technology, Sustainability

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