Plastic is choking the world’s oceans. Between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year. Experts warn that without significant intervention, it could accelerate sevenfold over the next few decades.
But why is so much ending up there in the first place? Shockingly, only 9% of global plastic waste is recycled. To make matters worse, between 2019-2021, single-use plastic production rose significantly and is projected to increase by 17 million tonnes by 2027. So, how does the world turn the tide on plastic pollution?
A recent study published in PLOS One found that the global plastic pollution problem is at “unprecedented levels.” The research, conducted between 1979 and 2019, found that after 2005 numbers skyrocketed. Estimates are that the total weight of plastic pollution in the ocean is 2.3 million tonnes. The study prompted calls for an international, legally-binding and wide-ranging treaty.
In the MENA region, specifically, plastic pollution is a serious issue. Egypt contributes the highest levels of marine-plastic waste pollution in the region, despite per capita plastic waste generation being among the region’s lowest. Likewise, the Mediterranean is one of the world’s most polluted seas, with 570,000 tons of plastic waste released into it each year. Further, while only holding 1% of the world’s waste, research shows it contains 7% of the world’s marine-debris microplastics.
Microplastics are fragments of polyamide, polyethene and polyethene terephthalate, and recent research by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography revealed that there could be a million times more of it in the ocean than previously thought.
Speaking about this, Marina Antonopoulou, Senior Director of Nature Conservation, Climate & Energy at Emirates Nature-WWF, said: “Excessive amounts of plastic waste have built-up in our oceans, with an estimated 8 million metric tons being added every year. This can be devastating for sea birds and other marine animals. Our region is no exception, as local researchers have confirmed that microplastics and marine debris pose a major risk to sea turtles.”
Adding: “We are also witnessing a growing accumulation of microplastic which can negatively affect local fisheries and natural habitats and enter human and animal food supply chains.”
Indeed, the impact of plastic pollution on natural habitats, animals and marine organisms is devastating. Research has shown microplastic ingestion by marine organisms can damage or entirely block their digestive tracts and weaken their feeding abilities. At the same time, marine plastics contribute to the death of more than 100000 marine mammals each year.
Further, studies have shown that microplastic bioaccumulation is prevalent in fish and has been detected in a wide range sold in markets for consumption, as well as in fish meal and animal feed. Microplastics have also been found in drinking water, salt and beer.
Considering that alongside being one of the most polluted seas in the world, the Mediterranean Sea, is also the most overfished place in the world, the impact is three-fold:
- Fish populations have dropped drastically in the last fifty years.
- Ecosystems and sealife are being destroyed.
- Human microplastic ingestion is increasing.
It is believed that the average person eats, drinks and breathes between 78,000 and 211,000 microplastic particles yearly, and while the effects are understudied, research is beginning to show a correlation to cancer and various other health problems.
Some of the main barriers to dealing with the plastic pollution issue involve a lack of robust regulations and inconsistent application of legislation, alongside a lack of consumer awareness and inaction.
Take Morocco as an example. In 2016, it introduced a single-use plastic ban, as Africa’s largest consumer of plastic bags, using three billion plastic bags annually. The legislation intended to ban the production, import, sale, and distribution of single-use plastic bags. However, in 2018, a review of the law’s impacts found that single-use plastic bags were still used in markets, largely for free. The majority of respondents (65%) admitted they used an average of between five to 15 bags per shopping trip.
That’s not to say that the legislation has been entirely ineffectual, but while plastic bag usage has declined in supermarkets, in markets and small shops, which account for 80 per cent of retail outlets in the country, plastic bag usage is still prevalent.
Moreover, although an amendment to the law was introduced in 2019 by the Ministry of Industry to strengthen checks on manufacturers, improve import transparency, and increase fines, plastic bag usage is still widespread. Likewise, it appears there’s an ongoing cognitive dissonance in the minds of consumers, of which 90 per cent were aware of the law and recognised the negative impact of single-use plastic on health and the environment, yet still used them.
When searching for solutions to the plastic pollution issue, better waste management and behavioural change are often highlighted as key. Jérôme Viricel, General Manager of RECAPP at Veolia Near & Middle East, explained that to address these issues, Veolia has been focusing on the “proper collection, recycling, and recovery of plastic waste” and offers what he calls a “real alternative” to producing virgin plastics. This includes Plastiloop, which is a recycled plastics offering.
Meanwhile, Viricel also highlighted the importance of incentivising consumers and explored how RECAPP does this. “One of our solutions for closing the plastic loop is RECAPP, the first recycling app launched in the UAE. Over the past two years since its launch, it has grown into a community of 53000 users, collecting more than 900 tonnes of recyclables, including 31 million plastic bottles, 1.6 million cans, 1.3 million tins, and 1 million plastic trays.”
According to Viricel, RECAPP rewarded users with 35,200 vouchers, built a portfolio of 18 reward partners, and helped reduce CO2 emissions by 1,900 tonnes. He also noted the launch of the GoRECAPP.com app last November, the first B2B digital recycling platform in the UAE, created to enable businesses to deploy recycling boxes on their premises.
ZeLoop, similarly, is an eco-friendly app that rewards plastic disposal by tackling both plastic waste management and behavioural change. Eric Schaffner, Founder and CEO, explained that the company encourages individuals to positively impact the environment by adopting “eco-responsible behaviour.”
“We support brands to engage end users and companies to motivate their employees in preventing and fighting littering with a gamified and rewarding approach,” he said. The company has worked with Nestlé, Bee’ah, and Schneider Electric and said that it has demonstrated that individuals can be motivated to go the extra mile. “Some collect, in a single month, up to 200 times the average annual amount of plastic bottles consumed by the UAE inhabitants.”
Schaffner added that circularity requires producers to design easily-recyclable products, consumers to return used products at drop-off points for collection, and waste management companies to provide efficient collection networks and recyclers to transform used products for the next cycle. “The loop of the circular economy will be broken if consumers are not involved,” he said. “And this why ZeLoop focuses on people’s behaviours to close the loop.”
It is evident that to stop plastic waste before it enters the ocean, a collective is required across the board. And as Antonopoulou explains, to realise a “true circular economy model,” innovation and collaboration are paramount: “We need to consider the lifecycle of materials early on from the design stage and ensure that producers work together with government to reduce pollution and invest in innovative design as well as proper disposal.”