Plastic Pollution

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Is global plastic pollution approaching an irreversible tipping point?

Plastic Pollution’s irreversible effects.

Thursday, 8th July 2021

Plastic can be seen everywhere on earth: from deserts and mountain tops to the depths of the sea and Arctic snow. As of 2016, global plastic emissions to the world's lakes, rivers, and oceans are estimated to range between 9 and 23 million metric tons per year, with similar amounts discharged to land each year. Applying the general business scenario, these estimates are expected to nearly double by 2025.


"Plastic is deeply ingrained in our society and can leach into the environment anywhere, even in countries with good waste disposal infrastructure. "said Matthew McLeod, a professor at Stockholm University and lead author of the study. He said that although scientists and public awareness of plastic pollution have increased significantly in recent years, emissions are increasing.


This difference is not surprising to Mine Tekman, a doctoral student at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and a co-author of the study because plastic pollution is not just an environmental problem, but also a "political and economic" problem. She believes that current solutions, such as recycling and cleaning technology, are not enough, and we must fundamentally solve the problem.


"The world promotes recycling technology solutions and removes plastics from the environment. As consumers, we believe that when we properly separate our plastic waste, all of this will magically be recycled. Technically speaking, there are many plastic recycling restrictions, countries with good infrastructure have been exporting plastic waste to countries with poor facilities. Reducing emissions requires tough measures, such as restricting the production of virgin plastics to increase the value of recycled plastics and prohibiting the export of plastic waste unless it is exported to countries with better recycling conditions. Tekman said.


Also Read: Climate change: Planting more trees will increase rainfall in Europe.


A poorly reversible pollutant of remote areas of the environment

When the amount released exceeds the amount cleared through the cleanup plan and the natural environment process, plastic will accumulate in the environment, which occurs through a multi-step process called weathering.


"The weathering of plastic is caused by many different processes, and we have come a long way in understanding it. But weathering is constantly changing the characteristics of plastic pollution and opening new doors to more problems," Hans Peter Alp is a professor at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI) and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and he is also a co-author of the study. "Degradation is very slow and cannot effectively prevent accumulation, so exposure to degraded plastic will only increase," Arp said. Therefore, plastic is a kind of "poorly reversible pollutant", no matter its continuous discharge or environmental persistence.


The remote environment is particularly threatened, as co-author Annika Jahnke, a researcher at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) and a professor at RWTH Aachen University, explained: "In remote environments, plastic waste cannot be cleaned up. Products will inevitably produce a large number of microparticles and nanoparticles, as well as the leaching of chemicals that are deliberately added to the plastic and other chemicals that destroy the plastic polymer backbone. Therefore, the plastic in the environment is a constantly moving target and its complexity Sex and liquidity continue to increase. Where it accumulates and the impact it may cause is challenging and may even be unpredictable."


A potential tipping point of irreversible environmental damage

In addition to the environmental damage caused by plastic pollution itself through animal entanglement and toxic effects, it can also interact with other environmental stressors in remote areas to trigger a broader and even global impact. The new study lists some hypothetical examples of potential impacts, including the exacerbation of climate change due to the disruption of the global carbon pump and loss of biodiversity in the ocean, plastic pollution-causing additional pressure on overfishing, and changes that lead to a continuous habitat. lost. Water temperature, nutrient supply, and chemical exposure.


In conclusion, the author believes that the threat of plastic emissions today, which may cause irreversible effects on a global scale in the future, is a "compelling motivation" for tailored actions to substantially reduce emissions.


"Now, we are adding more and more irreversible plastic pollution to the environment. So far, we have not seen extensive evidence of adverse effects, but if degraded plastic causes very bad effects, it is unlikely that we can reverse it." McLeod warned. "Ignoring the build-up of persistent plastic pollution in the environment can be costly. It is reasonable to take action as soon as possible to reduce the discharge of plastics into the environment."


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