By banning single-use plastic, the countries of the European Union are taking a first step toward protecting the environment. Researchers provide figures to show what the situation is actually like due to plastic pollution. According to calculations for the future, they sound the alarm.
The annual plastic pollution of waters and on land could almost double from 2016 to 2025, according to researchers, if humans continue as they are doing. The global input of plastic into lakes, rivers and oceans in 2016 was estimated to be 9 million to 23 million tons, the team of researchers from Germany, Sweden and Norway wrote in a review article. A similar amount – 13 to 25 million metric tons – entered the land-based environment that year, according to the article, which is published as part of a thematic focus on plastics in the journal Science.
“Plastic is deeply rooted in our society, and it is seeping into the environment everywhere, even in countries with good waste treatment infrastructure,” said Matthew MacLeod of Stockholm University. In the process, he said, emissions are trending upward, even though awareness of plastic pollution among scientists and the public has increased significantly in recent years.
Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute (Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, AWI) in Bremerhaven and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig were among those involved in the review article. Mine Tekman of AWI warned against the impression that everything can be recycled in a “magical way” if plastic waste is properly separated.
Recycling has many limitations
“Technologically, recycling plastic has many limitations, and countries that have good infrastructure export their plastic waste to countries with poorer facilities,” she explained. In addition, she said, there is a fundamental problem with non-biodegradable materials. She therefore called for drastic measures, such as banning the export of plastic waste unless it is to a country with better recycling.
Remote areas are particularly threatened by plastic waste, as Annika Jahnke of the UFZ explained. There, plastic waste cannot be removed by cleanup. Also, she said, the weathering of large pieces of plastic inevitably leads to the creation of a large number of micro- and nanoplastic particles, as well as the leaching of chemicals that have been intentionally added to the plastic.
In addition to the environmental damage that plastic pollution alone could cause through animal entanglement and toxic effects, the research team also warned that it could trigger widespread or even global impacts when combined with other environmental stressors in remote areas. It is conceivable, they said, that it could affect marine biodiversity and its carbon pump, which is important for the climate. Plastic acts as an additional stressor there.
MacLeod concludes, “The cost of ignoring the accumulation of long-lived plastic pollution in the environment could be enormous. The most sensible thing we can do is to act as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of plastic entering the environment.”
Some products made from single-use plastic will be banned in the EU, and therefore also in Germany, from July. This affects items for which there are alternatives, such as drinking straws, stirrers, balloon wands and disposable tableware. Certain drinking cups and disposable containers made of polystyrene may also no longer be produced and sold. However, existing products may still be sold.