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World Oceans Day 2020: Wading in marine plastic

Images of beached whales with large amounts of plastic waste found in their digestive system, or of other marine wildlife ensnared in plastic garbage have become distressingly common in recent years. These images are only a snapshot of the problem of marine litter, which consists of any item that was used and deliberately discarded or unintentionally lost into the sea. This refuse consists of plastics, wood, metals, glass, rubber, clothing, and more, but pollution by plastic waste is by far the most problematic and pervasive.[1]

Plastics make up 80% of the total amount of marine debris present in the oceans, amounting to more than 8 million tons in our vital ocean ecosystems.[2] This is the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic being dumped into the oceans every minute.[3] Our oceans are wading in marine plastic, so much so that at this rate, it is estimated that the ocean will contain more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050.[4] This plastic pollution is particularly harmful to seabirds, fish, and marine organisms that accidentally ingest it or become entangled in it. In addition, there are negative economic and social effects, such as costs to tourism and reduction in the aesthetic value of coastal areas. Marine plastic has been found in every corner of the oceans, from Antarctica to the world’s deepest trenches.[5],[6]

Moreover, these plastic debris fragment and disintegrate in the ocean, creating tiny particles of plastic pollution (less than 5 mm diameter) that are known as microplastics. Microplastics can be especially dangerous to marine organisms, as they can be ingested even by microscopic organisms, and make their way up the food chain, eventually landing on our dishes. Scientists have also become aware of the issue of toxic chemicals and hormone disruptors that are either already part of, or become attached to plastic particles, and leach into the organisms after they are ingested.[7] Other than the fragmentation of large plastic particles into smaller microplastics, household products and our clothing can be sources. Products such as toothpaste, shampoo, and cosmetics may contain tiny spheres of plastic called microbeads. Many countries have chosen to ban them as the scale of the problem has become clearer in recent years. Washing clothes that are made of synthetic fibers, such as polyester, also leads to the release of microfibers – tiny threads of plastic fiber – that end up in wastewater systems and eventually aquatic ecosystems, to be ingested by fish and again, eventually landing on our own plates.

So what is being done to combat this crucial issue? The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has made marine plastics an important issue, highlighting the effects and examining the gaps in addressing marine plastics at each stage of the value chain. UNEP launched a Clean Seas campaign in February 2017 to engage governments, the public, and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic pollution. This five-year initiative will address the root cause of marine litter by “targeting the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastic.”[8] Countries around the world have also taken action on this issue, recognizing the risks of microplastics in the Leaders’ Declaration at the G7 summit in Germany in 2015, creating a joint Ocean Plastics Charter at the 2018 G7 summit in Canada, and setting up a G20 Action Plan on Marine Litter in Germany 2017.[9],[10],[11].  In addition, at the G20 summit 2019 in Japan, member states created a “G20 Implementation Framework for Actions on Marine Plastics Litter” to move forward concrete actions, especially regarding marine plastic litter and microplastics. [12]

Individual countries have responded with their own strategies, action plans, laws, and declarations to combat marine litter, while phasing out single-use plastics and considering the life-cycle of plastics products towards the creation of a sustainable circular economy. Many international and local civil organizations are partnering with governments and researchers to organize clean-ups of coastal environments, such as the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. Fishing for Litter schemes in Europe are cooperating with fishermen to collect abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fish gear (ALDFG). Businesses are joining hands to create cutting-edge solutions to reduce plastic packaging and boost the market for recycled plastics, such as in the Circular Plastics Alliance from Europe.

Further research and innovation is needed to understand the current state, future problems, and solutions associated with marine litter. At Future Earth, we are also taking on this task through our global networks of scientists, researchers, and partners. Below is a list of some of our initiatives related to ocean sustainability:

  • Oceans Knowledge-Action Network: Our Knowledge-Action Networks (KANs) bring together innovators from academia, policy, business, civil society and more to facilitate sustainability research on today’s environmental challenges. Our Ocean KAN seeks to support solutions- oriented research, engagement with stakeholders, and working with the strong fundamental research and innovative agendas of international marine projects in and beyond Future Earth.
  •  Collaborative Research Action (CRA) Ocean Sustainability: Future Earth co-branded a Collaborative Research Action on Transdisciplinary Research for Ocean Sustainability with the Belmont Forum and JPI Oceans. This funding supported projects that took integrated, transdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches towards the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) no. 14 to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. Thirteen international projects were awarded, with a total of 14,250,000 Euro by funding organizations from 16 countries.
  •  PEGASuS 2: Ocean Sustainability: A partnership between Future Earth, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), and Global Biodiversity Center at Colorado State University, this initiative supports two ocean sustainability working groups involving not only researchers, but also innovators in policy, business and civil society to generate research that meets society’s needs. One project is aiming to establish a globally coordinated ocean observing system to assess the status of the ocean’s biodiversity and ecosystems. A second project is working to help the Government of Palau review existing research and create a portfolio of policy options to support food security and marine resource sustainability in Palau’s National Marine Sanctuary.
  • Fourth AEON Future Earth Forum: This annual forum held in The University of Tokyo, gathers over 800 participants to educate the public and create a dialogue on environmental issues, choosing a theme from Future Earth’s Knowledge-Action Networks. The fourth forum that was held this February was on the theme of “Protecting the Ocean’s Environment and Resources”. High school students presented on marine plastic pollution, introducing a website that they created with various information and discussing what each of us as individuals can do.
  •  Ocean Decade Survey: The United Nations has declared 2021-2030 as the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, as an opportunity for global cooperation to take transformative actions toward sustainable oceans. PEGASuS postdocs with Future Earth and NCEAS were involved in the development of a survey for Early Career Professionals, that would include their voices on the Decade preparation process.