“Plastic is deeply engrained in our society, and it leaks out into the environment everywhere, even in countries with good waste-handling infrastructure,” says Matthew MacLeod, Professor at Stockholm University and lead author of the study. He says that emissions are trending upward even though awareness about plastic pollution among scientists and the public has increased significantly in recent years.
That discrepancy is not surprising to Mine Tekman, a PhD candidate at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and co-author of the study, because plastic pollution is not just an environmental issue but also a “political and economic” one. She believes that the solutions currently on offer, such as recycling and cleanup technologies, are not sufficient, and that we must tackle the problem at its root.
“The world promotes technological solutions for recycling and to remove plastic from the environment. As consumers, we believe that when we properly separate our plastic trash, all of it will magically be recycled. Technologically, recycling of plastic has many limitations, and countries that have good infrastructures have been exporting their plastic waste to countries with worse facilities. Reducing emissions requires drastic actions, like capping the production of virgin plastic to increase the value of recycled plastic, and banning export of plastic waste unless it is to a country with better recycling,” says Tekman who helped develop AWI's online portal litterbase.org, which compiles the scientific literature on marine litter and its impacts in a continuously updated way.
A poorly reversible pollutant of remote areas of the environment
Plastic accumulates in the environment when amounts emitted exceed those that are removed by cleanup initiatives and natural environmental processes, which occurs by a multi-step process known as weathering.
“Weathering of plastic happens because of many different processes, and we have come a long way in understanding them. But weathering is constantly changing the properties of plastic pollution, which opens new doors to more questions,” says Hans Peter Arp, researcher at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI) and Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) who has also co-authored the study. “Degradation is very slow and not effective in stopping accumulation, so exposure to weathered plastic will only increase,” says Arp. Plastic is therefore a “poorly reversible pollutant,” both because of its continuous emissions and environmental persistence.