The Burden of Marine Plastic Pollution: Who is to blame?

By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish by weight, in the oceans of the world. This might startle most of us, but it could be a very real possibility. The environmental crisis of marine plastic pollution is widespread and should be one of immediate concern for the international community. Marine litter can be defined as all persistent, manufactured, or processed solid material disposed of or abandoned over coastal and marine environments. It is estimated that 80% of marine litter is plastic waste. Plastic pollution is extensive in most of the earth’s ecosystems due to its poor biodegradability. Further, plastic waste management remains dismal at the global level. In  2015, around 9% of plastic waste was recycled, 12% incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. Much of the plastic in use has a short useful life, such as single-use disposables and packaging; when discarded it may eventually make its way into the oceans through river systems and beaches, when not managed properly. As of 2018, it is estimated that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic weighing more than a quarter million tons in aggregate in all the world’s oceans. Due to oceanic circulation patterns, some areas of the ocean have enormous garbage patches bigger than the size of France! Marine plastic litter harms aquatic life through ingestion, leading to choking or poisoning, as well as through entanglement. Micro-plastics, formed through the gradual breakdown of larger pieces, enter the food chain and eventually end up reaching humans through seafood. Since the vast majority of marine plastic litter originates from land, attention has naturally been focused on plastic waste management, or the lack of it, in different parts of the world.

Whose fault is it? 

Considering the amount of plastic waste that has taken up our marine environment it is important to determine who is responsible for the same. Plastic waste needs to be understood as a by-product of socioeconomic systems that encourage wasteful consumption patterns. Like many environmental themes, the issue of marine plastic litter also displays a Global North – Global South divide.

The developed nations frequently downplay their responsibilities regarding marine plastic pollution and often quote a study conducted by an international team led by German researchers in 2017. It concluded that 90% of the marine plastic pollution originating from land is contributed by only ten river systems in the world: The Yangtze, Yellow, Hai He, Pearl, The Indus, Ganges, Amur, Mekong, The Nile, and the Niger. These river systems either flow from or contain basins in developing nations including China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Similar results were announced by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2020, identifying these same five developing nations as responsible for over half of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans every year. Additionally, the Global North also likes to point out the ‘developing nations’ grossly inadequate waste management, disposal, and recycling infrastructure in the face of skyrocketing demand for plastic goods. For example, India is only able to collect less than 70% of its municipal solid waste, and even the share collected is not completely disposed of or recycled adequately.

However, holding the South as largely responsible for the marine plastic pollution crisis based on final pollution sources may provide an incomplete, and arguably biased picture. A quick look at total and per capita plastic waste generation figures may help to paint a fairer picture of responsibility. As of 2016, global per capita plastic waste generation was led by the United States with 130 kg/year and the United Kingdom at 98.7 kg/ year, while Thailand and Malaysia had per capita plastic waste generation rates of 69.5 kg/year and 67.1 kg/year respectively. In terms of total plastic waste generation, the United States leads the charge as well with 42 million metric tons per year, while the corresponding figure for China is only 21.6 million metric tons. This means that historically, the United States has generated almost double the amount of plastic waste than China. Thus, painting the South especially China as the sole poster boy for global marine plastic pollution is unfair. 

Looking beyond generation rates and analysing the actual fate of generated plastic waste in the North provides a far more accurate picture of culpability. While developed nations typically have good waste collection systems, recycling is often considered “uneconomic” domestically, leading to large-scale waste exports to the Global South for ‘recycling’. The G7 nations exported a total of 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste to developing nations in 2018, with the US, Japan, and Germany leading the table. The US only recycles about 10% of its plastic waste domestically and has been exporting its wastes to Asian countries, particularly China, for over 30 years. Additionally, the country is also the third-highest contributor of litter, illegal dumping, and other mismanaged wastes on its shorelines amongst coastal nations. The issue is not only with the export of plastic waste but the quality of the waste sent by the Global North as well. The plastic waste exported by the developed nations is often contaminated with non-recyclable trash mislabelled as ‘green waste’ for recycling. Poorly segregated or contaminated waste cannot be recycled economically or at all and is therefore dumped, vastly increasing the waste disposal burden on developing countries with poor waste management infrastructure. This was one of the leading reasons for China’s near-total ban on plastic waste imports in 2018. The Chinese ban suddenly upended the entire global recycling trade, but instead of developing domestic recycling, developed countries started increasing waste exports to other Asian and African countries. A worsening waste crisis forced Malaysia to send back five containers of waste to Spain and 450 tonnes of contaminated waste to developed nations from North America, Europe, and Asia in 2019. The Philippines also reverted 69 containers of waste to Canada for the same reason

In addition to being the biggest generators and exporters of plastic waste, the developed nations are also indirectly responsible for promoting a consumer model that encourages a disposable plastic waste economy in developing countries with inadequate capacity to process plastic waste. Multinational giants such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, etc. gain much of their revenue and profits from the developing world and contribute a significant share of disposable containers and packaging to the waste stream in the South. A 2021 study conducted by a consortium that included the London School of Economics and the Stockholm Environment Institute revealed that just 20 companies of the world are responsible for manufacturing more than half of single-use plastic products, identifying ExxonMobil, the US-based oil and gas giant, as the biggest producer amongst all. 

The Way Ahead 

It is apparent that the issue of ocean plastics is growing exponentially and shifting the blame on each other will not contribute to solutions. As marine plastic pollution is so widespread, it is integral to understand that the issue is out of the purview of any single country or continent and calls for international cooperation through multilateral channels like the United Nations. Strengthening the Basel Convention on waste trade by plugging the loopholes allowing ‘recycling’ will help minimize unethical waste dumping from the North to the South. Without a way to export their waste problem, the North will be forced to adopt improved recycling or even waste reduction at source. Plastic manufacturers, whether located in developed or developing countries, must be made responsible for dealing with the generated waste using Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) approaches. Legislation integrated with EPR-based instruments such as ‘product take back requirements’, ‘deposit refund systems’, and, ‘advance disposal fees’ as used in the European Union, should become more widespread in the South. Single-use plastic bans and fees, when successfully implemented, have already resulted in rapid waste reduction, as witnessed in the United Kingdom, which saw a 95% decline in plastic bag use in the country’s supermarkets post 2015. Development of biodegradable and sustainable alternatives made from biological feedstocks should be pursued in parallel, with the North assuming most of the responsibility for funding research and commercialization at an affordable cost for the developing world. Finally, financial and technical assistance by the developed nations is also needed in the Global South to develop a better waste management infrastructure that includes collection, segregation, and recycling with the goal of moving towards a ‘circular economy’. Unfortunately, marine plastic pollution is already at such a massive scale that it cannot be ‘cleaned up’; therefore, the only way to tackle the problem is to gradually stop the flow of plastic waste into the oceans.

Ashwin Nair is a final year student at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities majoring in Environmental Studies. 

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