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Cleanup, waste management aren’t enough to save ecosystems from plastic pollution

Sept. 17 (UPI) — Even if countries fund massive cleanup efforts and dramatically improve waste management infrastructure, two studies published Thursday in the journal Science suggest it won’t be enough to save Earth’s ecosystems from plastic pollution.

“We simply make too much plastic waste to handle with current waste management infrastructure, and eventually we are going to run out of land to put landfills,” ecologist Stephanie Borrelle, research fellow at the University of Toronto, told UPI in an email.


Plastic pollution is a growing problem for the planet’s many ecosystems. From the island reefs and deep sea valleys to polar glaciers and the world’s tallest peaks, pieces of plastic, big and small, are showing up everywhere.

And it’s not just ecosystems. Scientists have recovered micro plastics from the intestines of dozens of animals species. Tiny bits of plastic are even showing up in human organs.

Because water works to collect, carry and concentrate plastic pollution, freshwater and marine ecosystems are most at risk.

To better understand the scope of the problem and how humans might combat it, scientists combined country level waste generation and population growth data — while also considering changes in plastic usage patterns — to estimate global plastic waste generation through 2030.

“To estimate the amount that enters rivers, lakes and the oceans, we made a model that predicts the proportion of plastic waste that is not managed … that will likely make its way into major waterways,” said Borrelle, lead author on one of the new studies.

“The data we used for this was high resolution downhill flow accumulation data called Hydrosheds,” Borrelle said. “The basic premise is that if a piece of plastic is littered next to a river, there is a high probability that it will end up in that river, but as you move further away that probability rapidly decreases.”

Next, researchers looked at the commitments made by different countries toward different plastic pollution solutions, including waste reduction, waste management and clean up.

The analysis showed even robust efforts to reduce, manage and cleanup waste won’t offset the continue production of virgin plastic. As a result, Borrelle and her colleagues warn ecosystems will continue to experience increases in plastic pollution.

“We are already seeing the wide-scale contamination of all ecosystems with plastic, from thee deep oceans, to the poles, high on mountains and in wildlife, there are emerging toxicological impacts, not just for wildlife affected by it, but people too,” Borrelle said. “Plastic takes a long time to break down, so it will just keep piling up and breaking apart into microplastics.”

The findings aren’t an excuse to surrender the Earth to an onslaught of plastic. Instead, researchers hope their findings will inspire nations to commit to producing less plastic, in addition to funding cleanup efforts and enhancing waste management infrastructure.

According to researchers, policy makers must act swiftly to prevent plastic-making companies from passing the costs of pollution environmental degradation onto governments and consumers.

“The plastics economy needs to be turned upside down,” Borrelle said. “Currently, producers of plastics — the petrochemical sector of the oil and gas industry — are subsidized to make virgin plastics, and are heavily investing in infrastructure to expand this capacity. This has lead to virgin plastic materials being cheaper to produce than recycled materials.”

Ending fossil fuel subsidies and instituting cap and trade policies for plastic production could both help reduce the production of virgin plastic to manageable levels.

“We are going to have to also improve waste management and unfortunately for as long as we use plastics, some will enter the environment, so clean up has to be a part of any strategy,” Borrelle said.

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