Global Assessment of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution: UNEP


    In News

    • Recently, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a comprehensive assessment named ‘From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution’.

    Key Findings

    • Tripled Amount of Plastic: 
      • The amount of plastics in the oceans has been estimated to be around 75-199 million tonnes at present. 
      • Without meaningful action, emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are projected to nearly triple by 2040.
    • Extreme Pressure on Planet: 
      • The report talks about the extreme pressures being exerted on the planet due to plastic pollution and the need for urgent action to offset it.
      • The report flagged that under a business-as-usual scenario and in the absence of necessary interventions, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple by 2040.
    • Biodegradable Plastic: 
      • Plastics labelled as biodegradable may take hundreds of years to degrade in the oceans; litter poses similar risks to individuals, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.
    • Main Source of Marine Litter: 
      • The main sources of marine litter and plastic pollution are land-based. 
      • Approximately 7,000 million of the estimated 9,200 million tonnes of cumulative plastic production between 1950 and 2017 became plastic waste.
    • Alteration in Global Carbon Cycle:
      • Plastic can also alter global carbon cycling through its effect on plankton and primary production in marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems. Greenhouse gas emission from plastics:
    • Effect on Global Economy:
      • Marine litter and plastic pollution also significantly affect the global economy. 
      • The economic costs of marine plastic pollution with respect to its impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with other costs such as those of clean-ups, were estimated to be at least USD 6-19 billion globally in 2018. 
      • It is projected that by 2040 there could be a USD 100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs at expected volumes and recyclability. 
      • High levels of plastic waste can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal.


    • Plastic is a synthetic organic polymer made from petroleum with properties ideally suited for a wide variety of applications, including packaging, building and construction, household and sports equipment, vehicles, electronics and agriculture.
    • Plastic is cheap, lightweight, strong and malleable. Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year.
    • Sources of Plastic: 
      • The main sources of marine plastic are land-based, from urban and storm runoff, sewer overflows, beach visitors, inadequate waste disposal and management, industrial activities, construction and illegal dumping.
      • Ocean-based plastic originates mainly from the fishing industry, nautical activities and aquaculture.
      • Under the influence of solar UV radiation, wind, currents and other natural factors, plastic fragments into small particles, termed microplastics (particles smaller than 5 mm) or nanoplastics (particles smaller than 100 nm).
    • Plastic Waste In India:
      • Plastic waste contributes about 5-6 per cent of total solid waste generated in India.
      • India consumes about 13 million tonnes of plastic and recycles only about 4 million tonnes.

    Major Concerns with Plastic 

    • Pollution: Plastic waste is blocking sewers, threatening marine life and generating health risks for residents in landfills or the natural environment.
    • Financial costs of marine plastic pollution: According to conservative forecasts made in March 2020, the direct harm to the blue economy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be $2.1 billion per year.
      • Boats become entangled in abandoned or discarded fishing nets or their engines may become blocked with plastic debris.
    • Enormous Social Costs: Residents of coastal regions suffer from the harmful health impacts of plastic pollution and waste brought in by the tides and are inextricably linked to the fishing and tourism industry for their livelihoods.
    • Food and Health: Invisible plastic has been identified in tap water, beer, salt and are present in all samples collected in the world’s oceans, including the Arctic.
      • The transfer of contaminants between marine species and humans through the  consumption of seafood has been identified as a health hazard .
    • Climate change: Plastic, which is a petroleum product, also contributes to global warming. If plastic waste is incinerated, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby increasing carbon emissions.
    • Tourism: Plastic waste damages the aesthetic value of tourist destinations, leading to decreased tourism-related incomes and major economic costs related to the cleaning and maintenance of the sites.

    Global Efforts To Tackle it

    • Legal efforts have been made at the international and national levels to address marine pollution.
    • The most important are:
      • The 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter (or the London Convention)
      • The 1996 Protocol to the London Convention (the London Protocol)
      • The 1978 Protocol to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).
      • The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) considers plastic marine debris and its ability to transport harmful substances as one of the main emerging issues affecting the environment.
      • At the 2015 G7 summit in Bavaria, Germany, the risks of microplastics were acknowledged in the Leaders’ Declaration.
      • GloLitter Partnerships (GLP): It is a project launched by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and initial funding from the Government of Norway.
      • Clean Seas Campaign:
        • The United Nations Environment Programme launched the Clean Seas Campaign in 2017
        • Aim:  The goal was to galvanize a global movement to turn the tide on plastic by reducing the use of unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastics including single-use plastics and phasing out intentionally added microplastics. 
        • Since then, 63 countries have pledged to do their part to improve plastics management through, among other measures, reducing the prevalence of single-use plastic products. 
        • The campaign will now highlight source to sea issues and solutions and call for urgent global action.
        • The Campaign contributes to the goals of the Global Partnership on Marine Litter and the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment

    Initiatives of India 

    • The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 clearly stipulate that urban local bodies (ULBs) should ban less than 50 micron thick plastic bags and not allow usage of recycled plastics for packing food, beverage or any other eatables.
      • The Rules also require that local bodies should provide separate collection, storage and processing of plastic waste in their areas.
    • The government has set an ambitious target of eliminating single-use plastics by 2022.
    • India is a signatory to MARPOL (International Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution).
    • In addition,  Prevention of Marine Pollution is also dealt with by Merchant Shipping Rules, 2009 framed under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958.

    Way Ahead

    • Designing a Product: Identifying plastic items that can be replaced with non-plastic, recyclable, or biodegradable materials is the first step. 
    • Find alternatives to single-use plastics and reusable design goods by working with product designers. Countries must embrace circular and sustainable economic practices throughout the plastics value chain to accomplish this.
    • Pricing: Plastics are inexpensive because they are made with substantially subsidised oil and may be produced at a lower cost, with fewer economic incentives to employ recycled plastics. Promoting alternative materials or reused and recycled plastics are necessary.
    • Technologies and Innovation: Developing tools and technology to assist governments and organisations in measuring and monitoring plastic garbage in cities. 
    • ‘Closing the loop’ project of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific assists cities in developing more inventive policy solutions to tackle the problem. A similar approach can be adopted in India. 
    • Promoting a plastic-free workplace: All catering operations should be prohibited from using single-use plastics. To encourage workers and clients to improve their habits, all single-use goods can be replaced with reusable items or more sustainable single-use alternatives. 
    • Producer responsibility: Extended responsibility can be applied in the retail (packaging) sector, where producers are responsible for collecting and recycling products that they launch into the market.
    • Municipal and community actions: Beach and river clean-ups, public awareness campaigns explaining how people’s actions contribute to marine plastic pollution (or how they may solve it) and disposable plastic bag bans and levies.
    • Multi-stakeholder collaboration: Government ministries at the national and local levels must collaborate in the development, implementation and oversight of policies, which includes participation from industrial firms, non-governmental organisations and volunteer organisations. 
    • Other Steps:  Several steps to combat plastic pollution like identifying hotspots for plastic leakage can assist governments in developing effective policies that address the plastic problem directly.   

    Source: DTE