Plastics may well be called a modern marvel, bringing untold benefits to society and saving lives. Yet at the same time, they have become a modern scourge, polluting the environment and forming a health hazard to man and beast.
We are drowning in our own success: society cannot cope with the sheer volume of that is plastic produced and discarded and only 9% of all the plastic ever manufactured has been recycled.
This latest study, commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the Committee on Petitions (PETI), focuses on the pervasive use of plastics and reviews the rising consensus on the potential eco-toxicological impacts of these materials, and in particular of microplastics.
As the authors note, plastics have been found in the stomach contents of numerous organisms, including earthworms, birds, turtles, dolphins and whales. Smaller particles may be even more pervasive, as these may be ingested by organisms at the starting point of the food chain.
A case in point is the recently discovered new species Eurythenes plasticus, an amphipod found at a depth of 6,900 meters and named after the plastic found to contaminate its gut. Sadly, the report writes, we had managed to contaminate it even before we discovered it.
Hydrophobic, with high surface area-to-volume ratios, smaller plastic particles can adsorb other contaminants and act as either sinks or sources of contamination in organisms. Moreover, the plasticisers used to improve the properties of some plastics can leach into the environment providing new routes of exposure to organisms, potentially leading to bioaccumulation phenomena.
Past studies suggest an economic damage to the global marine ecosystems of over € 11 billion. In Europe, € 630 million are spent every year to clean up coastal regions and beaches, while the failure to recycle costs the European economy € 105 billion.
Moreover, the recycling of plastic waste remains problematic because of the inherent difficulties with the collection and separation of the feedstocks used in the recycling process. Alternative solutions, such as energy conversion have severe environmental impacts and detrimental consequences for the climate.
Assessing the existing regulatory instruments available at the national, regional and international levels across the EU, reveals that their impact is unclear, according to the authors of the present study.
This legislation needs to be improved in order to better oversee and address environmental and human health impacts.
Current legislation consists mainly of levies, bans, and voluntary efforts based on the principle of the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. To date, however, the impact has been limited in terms of volume, scope, or both, especially in the light of the exponential yearly increase in production and use of plastics.
Importantly, most of the existing tools are designed to address plastic waste at the end of its life-cycle rather than looking at the source. Upstream legislative approaches are needed to stimulate a zero-waste target, which will undoubtedly improve the feasibility and efficacy of future plastic policies.
Uncertainties and knowledge gaps undermine the full understanding of the ecological, toxicological and environmental impacts of plastics, the authors write. Reducing toxic exposure to plastic waste, in all its forms, will require a plethora of solutions, both voluntary and legislative.
Ideally, the production, use and disposal of plastics should be dealt with on a global level, as existing supply chains cross and re-cross borders, continents and oceans.
“Stick and carrot” legislative approaches are needed, aimed at rewarding those – consumers, producers and suppliers – working towards a zero-waste strategy, while highly punitive actions should be developed for offenders.
Additionally, the report noted that translating science-based data into relevant implementable evidence- based strategies takes time. A more proactive interaction and intertwinement of all different stakeholders aiming at the development of such science-based strategies that are not the end-point of linear processes, but rather an important part of a circular approach, is needed.
These authors, also view outreach, awareness and education actions as probably the most effective ways to address the issue of plastic pollution. Including pollution and waste management education in schools could prove to be of great value, as behavioural changes in children are likely to socially influence peers, parents, and, by extension, communities.
They conclude, however, that ultimately, all current and future problems stemming from the ‘increasing use and presence of plastics in the environment are not only rooted in a single cause, but also have a common solution: the imperative and complete transition from the pervasive disposable plastic habits to a sustainable bio-based economy’.
The environmental impacts of plastics and micro-plastics use, waste and pollution: EU and national measures is available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/supporting-analyses