Ocean plastic pollution to quadruple by 2050, pushing more areas to exceed ecologically dangerous threshold of microplastic concentration
Posted on 08 February 2022
- Current projected growth in plastic pollution will cause significant ecological risks, with certain pollution hotspots like the Mediterranean, the East China and Yellow Seas, and the Arctic sea ice already exceeding ecologically dangerous threshold of microplastic concentrations.
- Negative impacts from plastic pollution are already detectable in most species groups while the productivity of several of the world’s most important marine ecosystems, like coral reefs and mangroves, are under significant risk.
- WWF calls on nations to adopt a legally binding global treaty against plastic pollution at the UN Environment Assembly to stem this crisis.
The review warns that by the end of the century, marine areas more than two and a half times the size of Greenland could exceed ecologically dangerous thresholds of microplastic concentration, as the amount of marine microplastic could increase 50-fold by then. This is based on projections that plastic production is expected to more than double by 2040 resulting in plastic debris in the ocean quadrupling by 2050.
Commissioned by WWF and conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, the report “Impacts of plastic pollution in the ocean on marine species, biodiversity and ecosystems'' notes that microplastic concentrations above a threshold level of 1.21 x 105 items per cubic metre have now been estimated in several regions around the world. This threshold, above which significant ecological risks are likely to occur, has already been exceeded in certain pollution hotspots like the Mediterranean, the East China and Yellow Seas and the Arctic sea ice.
In the worst case scenarios, exceeding ecologically dangerous thresholds of microplastic pollution could lead to adverse effects on species and ecosystems including reduced populations.
"All evidence suggests that plastic contamination of the ocean is irreversible. Once distributed in the ocean, plastic waste is almost impossible to retrieve. It steadily degrades and so the concentration of micro- and nanoplastics will continue to increase for decades. Targeting the causes of plastic pollution is far more effective than cleaning up afterwards. If governments, industry and society act in unison now, they can still limit the plastic crisis," said Heike Vesper, Director Marine Programme, WWF Germany.
Given the pervasiveness of plastic pollution, nearly every species has likely now encountered plastic. Negative impacts from plastic pollution are already detectable in most species groups while the productivity of several of the world’s most important marine ecosystems, like coral reefs and mangroves, are under significant risk.
Where other threats such as overfishing, global warming, eutrophication, or shipping overlap with plastic pollution hotspots, the negative impacts are amplified. For already threatened species, some of which live in such hotspots, such as monk seals or sperm whales in the Mediterranean, plastic pollution is an additional stress factor pushing these populations towards extinction.
“Research acts like a flashlight with which we cast rays of light into the darkness of the oceans. Only a fraction of the effects have been recorded and researched, but the documented effects caused by plastic are concerning and must be understood as a warning signal for a much larger scale, especially with the current and projected growth in plastic production,” said Dr. Melanie Bergmann, Marine Biologist, Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.
The durable nature of plastic also means that the uptake of microplastic, and nanoplastic, in the marine food chain will only continue to accumulate and reach dangerous levels, if we do not cut our production and use of plastic now.
This pervasive and ever-growing threat to ocean life can only be tackled with an efficient global and systemic solution, which countries can establish by adopting a global treaty at the UN Environment Assembly 5.2 in February.
Pressure is mounting on the international community for a legally binding treaty. More than 2 million people around the world have signed a WWF petition, while over 100 global companies, more than 700 civil society organisations and 156 countries, making up more than ¾ of UN member states, have also backed calls for a treaty.
“Without a doubt, unchecked plastic pollution will become a contributing factor to the ongoing sixth mass extinction leading to widespread ecosystem collapse and transgression of safe planetary boundaries. We know how to stop plastic pollution and we know the cost of inaction comes at the expense of our ocean ecosystems – there is no excuse for delaying a global treaty on plastic pollution. The way out of our plastic crisis is for countries to agree to a globally binding treaty that addresses all stages of plastic’s lifecycle and that puts us on a pathway to ending marine plastic pollution by 2030,” said Ghislaine Llewellyn, Deputy Oceans Lead, WWF.
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Notes to the Editor
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A summary of the report “Impacts of plastic pollution in the ocean on marine species, biodiversity and ecosystems” is available here. Find the full report here.
Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research and WWF evaluated 2,592 studies on plastic and plastic pollution to provide a comprehensive look at the current state of knowledge on the impacts of plastic pollution on marine species, biodiversity, and ecosystems with the aim of making such information easily accessible to decision-makers and the public.
Some of the key findings include:
- A total of 2,144 species have so far been found to encounter plastic pollution in their natural environments, according to a conservative assessment of current research.
- There is a clear trend that shows 88% of marine species studied were found to be negatively impacted by plastic. For instance, it is estimated that up to 90% of all seabirds and 52% of all sea turtles ingest plastic.
- The extent of plastic pollution and its impact on marine species and ecosystems varies widely: from pieces of plastic in the stomach, deadly snares around the neck to chemical plasticizers in the blood, the dangers to marine life are immense. Plastic debris causes internal and external injury or death to marine animals and it can restrict locomotion or growth of creatures, reduce food intake, immune response or reproductive capacity of organisms.
- The complex root systems of mangroves, which are essential for maintaining marine biodiversity, have been measured to have some of the highest plastic densities in the world, and we know plastic pollution inhibits plant growth. In places with high pollution, such as Indonesia, mangrove forests, already declining from threats such as logging and land conversion, are under further threat from being covered in plastic waste.
- Coral reefs worldwide are in severe crisis due to climate change, and the additional threat to corals from plastic pollution has reached alarming levels. Where plastic trash gets caught between corals, the incidence of coral disease increases significantly. Plastic tarps or fishing gear often remain on the reef for decades, causing covered polyps to die or coral structures to break or abrade. And corals ingest microplastic particles with negative effects on symbiotic algae and their chances of survival enhancing coral bleaching.
WWF is an independent conservation organization, with over 30 million followers and a global network active in nearly 100 countries. Our mission is to stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit panda.org/news for the latest news and media resources; follow us on Twitter @WWF_media
About Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research
The Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and oceans of the high and mid-latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides major infrastructure to the international scientific community, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic.