'Microplastics in our seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy': World Environment Day 2018 aims to beat plastic pollution
By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
June 05, 2018, 10:09:17 AM EDT
This World Environment Day, the message is simple: reject single-use plastic.
The annually recognized day, acknowledged for the first time by the United Nations (UN) on June 5, 1974, has helped raise awareness and generate political momentum for a number of environmental concerns, including global warming and depletion of the ozone layer.
2018’s theme, “Beat Plastic Pollution,” zeroes in on the globally expanding problem of plastic pollution, which continues to plague the health of wildlife, marine life, humans and the environment.
“Our world is swamped by harmful plastic waste; every year, more than 8 million tons end up in the oceans,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres. “Microplastics in our seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy.”
Plastic production has outpaced that of most other materials on the planet since the 1950s, according to the UN. Every piece of plastic that has ever been created still exists in some form, as even the tiniest microplastic particles never fully degrade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Ocean Service.
“One of the problems with plastic is the same as one of its desirable properties – its durability and longevity,” said Dr. Maia McGuire, a Florida Sea Grant agent for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
While plastic may eventually break apart over time, often as a result of ultraviolet light exposure, this process merely converts large plastic items into many small plastic pieces, McGuire added.
“Global plastic production in 2017 was over 375 million metric tons,” McGuire said. “By the year 2025, scientists predict that we will be producing 600 million metric tons, and this amount is anticipated to reach 1 billion metric tons by the year 2050.”
India, this year’s World Environment Day host country, selected the “Beat Plastic Pollution” theme as a call to action for people to unite to tackle one of the planet’s greatest environmental challenges.
“Indian communities large and small will lead a global charge to beat plastic pollution through civic engagement and celebration,” UN Environment spokesperson Keith Weller told AccuWeather.
“With support from an inspiring cross section of Indian society, ranging from cricket pitches to board rooms, we’re witnessing an unprecedented national commitment to this global cause, with the promise to make this the largest and most consequential World Environment Day ever,” Weller said.
Managing our use of plastic
As plastic continues to pose significantly negative impacts on the planet’s health, UN Environment has released a new report which finds that governments in more than 60 countries are accelerating their efforts to cut down usage of single-use plastics.
The report, which also offers an approach of how the world can rethink the production, use and management of single-use plastics, showed that properly planned and enforced government levies and bans have been among the most effective ways of limiting the overuse of disposable plastics.
“Governments must lead, enacting strong policies that push for a more circular model of design and production of plastics,” said Weller, adding that individuals, the private sector and policymakers all have a critical role to play.
“Plastic isn’t the problem; it’s what we do with it,” Head of UN Environment Erik Solheim said in the report.
Making simple changes can help reduce the amount of plastic waste that a person generates, and the easiest step is avoiding single-use plastics by choosing reusable alternatives instead, according to McGuire.
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She recommended using a reusable water bottle or cup, choosing a washable hot drink container rather than disposable foam or plastic-lined paper cups, bringing along reusable shopping bags and taking a reusable container to restaurants as a doggy bag for leftovers.
“Recycling plastics is better than not doing so but is not a solution to the plastic waste problem,” McGuire said. “Many plastic items are either recycled incorrectly or cannot be sold; ‘virgin’ plastic is often cheaper than recycled plastic, so there is often not a market for many types of recycled plastic.”
Michelle Pettit, a climate and sustainability specialist for Just Energy, suggested shopping at second-hand stores that don’t attach tags to their clothing and eliminating packaging entirely by purchasing from local vendors.
“On a broader scale, it's important to pay attention to and support politicians and companies that are working to change the way we're using everyday materials,” Pettit said. “Some politicians and lobbying groups are working towards plastic regulations, while others are trying to find ways to change the packaging industry; there are a lot of great movements out there.”
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