12 December 2011

A more permanent solution to plastic debris on our shores?

What do we know about plastic in marine litter? Where do they come from, what damage do they cause? Is there a more permanent solution to this issue?
A report by the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) summarises the state of the science on causes and proposes a framework for prevention.

What does the report aim to do?
"Currently, the causes of marine debris are addressed primarily through waste management practices, such that end-of-pipe solutions are central to action. However, this document explores the underlying cause of land-based plastic debris entering the marine environment, specifically production and consumption patterns of our economies. This includes design and marketing of products which lack appropriate regard for their environmental fate or ability to be recycled, waste management infrastructure, inappropriate disposal. Also the Geographical separation between production in relatively developed economies, and consumption/disposal, which is global."

Why should we be concerned about plastic debris?

Plastic is everywhere and forever
"Man-made debris in the oceans is now found from the poles to the equator and from shorelines, estuaries and the sea surface to ocean floor. While the types and absolute quantities vary, it is clear that plastic materials represent the major constituents of this debris. Because of their buoyancy and durability, plastic items can travel substantial distances."
Combined data showing total number of items of marine debris from 100m sections of selected reference beaches in Europe examined between 2001 and 2006. Note the prevalence of plastic items as the major components of the debris recorded. These trends are broadly consistent across regions and at a global scale. The analysis was based on data from 609 surveys made in eight countries – Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom (51 regular reference beaches altogether). (OSPAR 2007).

Plastic debris is rising rapidly
"There is evidence that despite efforts to remove debris from the marine environment and legislation to restrict dumping at sea, quantities of marine litter are stable in some locations and are increasing in others."
Trends in the abundance of plastic bottles and lids (bars show mean ± standard error) on South African beaches. Light grey bars – data from 36 beaches with regular municipal cleaning programs; dark grey bars – data from 14 beaches with no formal cleaning programs (Ryan et al. 2009).

Which plastic debris is most worrying?
"In terms of larger debris of particular concern is the accumulation of Abandoned, Lost or Otherwise Discarded Fishing Gear (ALDFG) from at sea disposal, including fishing nets which continue to catch fish long after they have become marine debris."

What are the impacts of plastic debris?
"More than 260 species are already known to be affected by plastic debris through entanglement or ingestion. Of the 120 marine mammal species listed on the IUCN Red List 54% are known to have been entangled in or have ingested plastic debris. A sample of all 34 green turtles and 14 of 35 seabirds found along the southern Brazilian seacoast had ingested debris, with plastic being the main ingested material."
A) Turtle entangled in plastic rope in Caribbean (photo: UNEP-CAR/RCU, 2008);
B) Entangled seal at Gweek Seal Sanctuary in Cornwall (photo by Caroline Curtis; source: OSPAR 2009);

C) Plastic packaging from the carcass of a Laysan albatross at Kure Atoll, courtesy of Cynthia Vanderlip and Algalita Marine Research Institute;
D) Plastic bags and film from stomach of young Minke whale that had been washed ashore dead in France (Courtesy for G.
Mauger and F. Kerleau, Group d’Etudes de Cétacés du Cotentin (GECC)).
"In addition to ingestion and entanglement, beach debris can affect behavior of intertidal organisms and adversely affect the ability of turtle hatchlings to reach the sea. Plastic debris is fragmenting in the environment and pieces as small as 2μm have been detected. There is also the potential for plastic to break down into nano-sized particles which may still be too large to actually biodegrade. Floating marine debris has also been implicated in the transport of non-native invasive species which can "raft" considerable distances on such debris."

Plastic debris also has social and economic impact on humans, which are also detailed in the report.

This report sets out to indicate some of the solutions to tackle the underlying causes of marine debris.  By doing so, there are potential synergies and benefits for industry, fisheries, as well as benefits for biodiversity together with the potential to reduce global carbon emissions.

Among the report's recommendations are

I) A pilot project or program testing the life-cycle approach to plastic debris prevention, reduction, and management. Making investments that could play a catalytic role in mobilizing public and private sector dialogue and resources for specific market transformation in the production, consumption, and utilization of marine debris sources such as plastics.

II) Focusing on reducing the environmental impacts associated with single-use plastics packaging while at the same time ensuring products retain functionality and are fit-for purpose. By combining  existing efforts of plastic producers, packaging and retailer associations, civil society organizations, multilateral institutions to establish a global public-private partnership. Outcomes include encouraging innovation to transform single-use plastics packaging to protect the global environment. This initiative would simultaneously help reduce reliance on non-renewable resources, reduce waste, improve waste management, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The report "Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem: Introducing a solutions based framework focused on plastic" (pdf) is available on the UNEP and GEF websites.

I got to know about this report from the Marine Debris mailing list.

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