Impact Blog
Plastics, marine life and a giant floating island of trash

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      By Erica Lasdon, ESG Senior Research Analyst, Calvert Research and Management

      Washington - Earth Day brings an annual opportunity to reflect on how we can better preserve our planet. One common theme many of us have heard for decades is the need for more recycling and the inadequacy of current efforts. If there was any doubt about the scope of the problem, a recent look at the plight of our oceans provided a stark reminder.

      Plastic pollution is one of the most significant current problems for oceans and other marine environments. In fact, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development."

      In the past few years, research has brought a wealth of knowledge about the scope and cause of the problem. We send 8 million metric tons of plastic from land into the oceans every year, driven largely by exponentially increased production of plastics and inadequate recycling and waste management systems.1

      A 2017 report from the UK Government Office for Science found that 70% of marine litter is non-degradable plastic, and projected the volume is expected to triple between 2015 and 2025.2 Meanwhile, as volume increases, the non-degradable plastic that has already accumulated sticks around, breaking into smaller microplastic particles. These are harder to remove and more likely to be consumed as food by marine life.

      Three times as big as France

      Plastic pollution is broadly evident in marine species and habitats. This issue is well documented through photographs and exemplified by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), which has become a global symbol of plastic pollution. A recently completed study undertook the most comprehensive assessment of the GPGP, reporting results of the three-year effort in March 2018.

      Already known to be enormous, the team provided measurements that are four to sixteen times higher than previous results -- estimating that the GPGP covers an area three times the size of France, contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, and weighs 80,000 metric tons. Furthermore, the team reported that GPGP plastic pollution levels have been growing exponentially since measurements began in the 1970s.3

      The body of scientific evidence of plastic ingestion by wildlife is also substantial. A 2015 report in ScienceLine noted that even on the remote Midway Atoll, plastic is so ubiquitous that it regularly is found in the stomachs of the 1.5 million albatross that make the tiny island their home during the nesting season.4 Around 700 species are estimated to be eating plastic, ranging from seabirds to anchovies and likely extending into the deep-sea food chain as well. The specific impacts on animals are under investigation, but largely unknown. 5

      Corporate cleanup

      Research paints a sobering picture of the consequences of inaction, but also helps point the way towards solutions. Experts say that clean-up efforts require major action to ensure that plastics stop making their way into the water systems.6 Both government and private sector participation in solutions is needed.

      Regulatory pressure is also mounting on corporations to transform their approach to the production, use and recyclability of plastic. In January 2018, the EU launched a Plastics Strategy that will expand existing legislation focused on plastic bags to an increased focus on other single use plastics, fishing gear, and use of microplastics in products.7 In March 2018, the World Health Organization launched a health review into the potential risks of microplastics in drinking water.8

      Meanwhile, China's ban on imports of low-grade plastic, among other types of waste, went into effect at the start of 2018, creating a global backup of recycling. Driven by concerns about local environmental pollution, the decision by China - which processed an estimated half of the world's exported paper, metal and used plastic waste - shows the urgency of the capacity problem.9

      Bottom line: Corporations should assess their involvement in the plastics cycle carefully and seek ways to ensure they can be part of creating a closed-loop solution. Reducing use of low-value plastic in packaging and investing the creation of commercially viable ways to managing the existing waste stream on land is critical to ensuring that this contamination stops finding its way into our oceans.