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11 Jun 2018Two decades ago, a deep sea submersible descended into the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.

In the middle of the Western Pacific, at a depth of 10,988 metres, it encountered a lone plastic bag. Scientists believe it’s the world’s deepest known piece of plastic rubbish. And it will take 400 to 1,000 years to disintegrate.

Ten thousand metres above, the ocean’s surface is similarly littered. You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This floating cluster of discarded plastic covers an estimated 1.6 million square kilometres, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.

The impact of so much plastic pollution in the ocean is detrimental to marine wildlife, to the planet and to humans. UN Environment puts the economic costs at roughly  US$13 billion per year, including clean-up costs and financial losses in fisheries and other industries.

A problem on this scale may seem daunting, but that giant island of garbage in the Pacific is made up of individual pieces of plastic that wound up in the ocean through a series of deliberate actions. As we trace the journey of plastic to the ocean, we can see how human actions at every step along the way could bring about a sea change.

Before a piece of plastic reaches open water, before it sinks to the ocean floor, it likely is deposited somewhere along our coastlines. Every year, up to 13 million tonnes of plastic reaches the ocean. That is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute, according to UN Environment.

Plastic is especially lethal to coral reef systems. Healthy coral reefs are the nurseries of the underwater world, nurturing an astonishing array of living organisms. They protect over 150,000 km of shoreline in 100 countries and territories, safeguarding coastal communities from heavy storm surges, winds and waves. A recent study found that, when corals come in contact with plastic, the likelihood of disease shoots up from 4 percent to 90 percent.

“People shouldn’t teach their garbage to swim."

Ellen McRaye is a marine biologist in Belize, where visitors come for spectacular snorkelling and scuba diving in the Blue Hole and the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. For the past 40 years, Ellen has witnessed the disappearance of pollutant-filtering mangrove forests and fish due to unsustainable tourism and other practices, like overfishing or dumping untreated sewage into coral reef nurseries.

Through UNDP’s Small Grants Programme, Ellen and a few volunteers were able to update an old boat with a modern motor and rehabilitate a centre to educate visitors on sustainable tourism. They tend to the health of mangrove nurseries in the Caye Caulker Forest and Marine Reserve and do weekly clean-ups of the coastal garbage that chokes and kills mangrove saplings. They also collect data that enable local governments to make decisions to protect the future of the country’s economic lifeline, the Belize Barrier Reef.

Volunteers are making a huge impact in Belize and around the world. In Lebanon, hundreds of youth have turned up to lend a hand in a series of coastal clean-ups. With every disused tote, toy or tyre dragged from the beach or dredged out of the sea, these young people are sending  a strong message about the need for change.

Rivers are the express highways for our plastic litter.

Coastal garbage, the global fishing sector, freight shipping, tourism and illegal dumping of plastic waste all contribute to plastic pollution in the open ocean. But one of the largest sources of ocean plastic are  rivers that connect to cities and towns inland. About a third the global population live along the banks of the  world’s top 122 polluting rivers.

Giving tourists a nudge

Nestled in the valley of the Terelj River, Gorkhi-Terelj National park is Mongolia's largest tourist attraction. It is seeing a steady 8.5 percent rise in overnight campers and day visitors every year. Last year, the park received 140,000 tourists. As the park's fame rose, during peak tourism season, park rangers were cleaning up four tonnes of waste daily.

UNDP and park officials are experimenting with an innovative approach to the problem. Working with Australia-based Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the initiative seeks to "nudge" positive behaviour to prevent plastic pollution and littering at key points throughout visitors' journey in the park.

Once heralded as an innovation, the plastic bag was welcomed most by city dwellers. Durable and convenient, plastic is the perfect vehicle for the demands of urban life.

But 86 percent of the plastic packaging that is produced globally is not recycled, according to  McKinsey & Company. That means a plastic bag used to carry a single item from the supermarket will be around for several generations.

By 2030, two thirds of people in the world will live in cities. Most of the world’s megacities are located near coastlines and river deltas. With the global population poised to reach 9.7 billion in the next three decades, cities will be the battleground for beating plastic pollution.

"What we do is for the future."

In Arequipa, Peru's second largest city, 49-year-old Gregoria Cruz doesn't just recycle garbage, she re-imagines it. She works for Recicla Vida, an association of recyclers, mainly women who are spreading a recycling culture in their city. The women collect about 400 kg of waste every day.

Formalizing their roles as the city's official recyclers has helped to gain visibility and recognition in a city where they once lived and worked on the margins of society. "We are official recyclers, we help to take care of the environment we live in," Gregoria says. "What we do is for the future."

Individual action alone will not stop the tidal wave of plastic pollution in the ocean. Governments, businesses and all the sectors that work with plastic can make the biggest impact by investing in sustainable alternatives.

Where do we start? By examining our relationship with plastic.

Costa Rica has taken a bold step by laying out a plan to completely eliminate single-use plastics. In Moldova, they are starting with the ubiquitous plastic bag. Students are busily researching alternatives as the country works on a two-year roadmap to phase out plastic bags.

Mariana and Octavian are studying urbanism and architecture at the Technical University of Moldova. They’re researching behavioural insights that would make the transition smooth for both customers and selling points. Theirs is a work in progress, and the duo aims to present their solutions at an upcoming innovation camp that UNDP Moldova will host as part of an initiative of the Innovation Facility. 

UNDP is also working with governments worldwide on business solutions for sustainable waste management. For instance, the Government of Kenya is developing a  circular economy approach to waste management in urban areas.

Instead of sending all refuse to the dump, this circular economy approach to waste management adds new points in Kenya’s value chain. In the future, 90 percent of collected waste will go to these new points, which include recycling sites, composting facilities and organic waste treatment centres.

In any given moment, there are 1 million plastic bags in use around the world. Each one has an average lifespan of 12 to 15 minutes before it is discarded. These and other single-use items – plastic cups, water bottles and food packaging – make up 89 percent of plastic litter identified on the floor of the ocean.

Sustainable Development Goal 14 focuses on preserving the health of the ocean; beating plastic pollution is critical to this effort to ensure ocean health and human health.

How can you help?

Picture your day. Start with your morning routine. Toothbrush. Shower. Work. School. Lunch. Shopping.

Now, picture yourself going through your day without a single piece of plastic. Can you do it?

We depend on plastic. It permeates all parts of modern life. But you can help make sure the plastic you use doesn’t make the journey to the bottom of the ocean. The old three-point plan still holds water: Reduce drastically the amount of single-use plastics you use; switch to containers and other convenience items that can you can reuse; and recycle what you no longer need.

As you journey through your day, take a closer look at your choices when it comes to plastic. And consider how every little action can help turn the tide for plastic pollution.

CONTINUE READING: https://feature.undp.org/plastic-tidal-wave/

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Publication date: 
07/06/2018
Publication Organisation: 
UNDP
Publication Author: 
UNDP
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