June 8th was World Oceans Day. It was an opportunity to emphasise the importance of our oceans and the many services they provide, as well as raise awareness of the ways in which we are harming them through plastic pollution. Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) attended the 3rd D-Tox Session by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). The webinar session held on Oceans Day titled “Addressing the threats to health and sustainability of oceans and fisheries” reminded us the detrimental effects of plastics and their “invisible pollutants”.
To preserve human and ecosystem health, we must protect our oceans. Oceans provide essential services such as carbon sequestration, climate regulation, and oxygen production, as well as being our source of food and medicine. To truly protect our oceans not only from evident human practices but also from invisible toxic chemicals, we must enact solutions to global plastic waste.
Since the 1950s, there has been a global exponential increase in plastic production and consumption. The last 15 years have led to a doubling in global production to 299 million tonnes in 2014, and in the next 20 years, another doubling is projected.
The plastic waste trade further complicates matters where waste from developed countries such as the United States of America, Japan, the United Kingdom, and countries in the European Union, is exported to developing countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. These developing countries are not equipped with enough resources required for stringent law enforcement of imported plastic wastes, and some do not have the necessary recovery system capacities to recycle such waste. It is, therefore, easier for unsafe, unclean, non-recyclable, and/or non-homogenous wastes to be dumped and subsequently pollute these developing countries.
Where do these plastic wastes end up? About 60% of all plastics ever produced end up in landfills, or as trash polluting our lands and oceans. Oceans act as the final receptacle for many land plastics. A 2021 study by Meijer et.al. found that 80% of global annual plastic emissions, ranging from 0.8–2.7 million metric tons per year, are from 1000 rivers. Rivers of most concern are small urban ones such as the Klang River. Malaysia, with emission of 0.073 million metric tons per year, ranked third in the top 20 most polluting countries based on annual plastic emissions of rivers into oceans.
Once in the ocean, plastics can persist, whilst carrying potentially toxic pollutants, over long distances for decades up to centuries. Plastic wastes are problematic as they: (a) release greenhouse gas emissions when biodegraded, exacerbating climate change, (b) cause visual pollution, (c) entrap, obstruct and are ingested by land and marine wildlife, (d) degrade into micro- and nano-plastics that accumulate and persist in the environment, and (e) can potentially release or leach toxic additives and contaminants throughout their lifecycles.
The potential toxicity of plastics is not widespread knowledge. However, numerous studies have shown how plastics can release or leach toxic substances such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) into air, sediment, or water throughout their lifecycles, harming ecosystems and human health. These toxic substances mainly occur from the intentional addition of plastic additives in the plastic production process, as stated in the IPEN report titled “Plastic’s toxic additives and the circular economy”.
IPEN found that 140 chemicals or chemical groups hazardous to humans are still currently being used in plastic production. Major chemical groups of concern used as additives include flame retardants (used to reduce flammability), perfluorinated chemicals (often called “forever chemicals” for their persistence, and used for surface treatment), phthalates (also known as plasticizers, used to increase pliability), bisphenols, and nonylphenols. These chemicals are commonly used to make children’s products, food and beverage packaging, electronics, textiles, and materials used in the construction sector. They can migrate from inside of the plastic to the surface, as well as from the plastic directly to a medium it is in contact with.
Additionally, the accumulation and degradation of plastics into micro- and nano-plastics in oceans can increase their contamination potential. Moreover, the presence of toxic additives is also concerning in the process of recycling; high-temperature stages such as moulding and extrusion can generate other hazardous chemicals.
Toxic chemicals released into the environment can expose and harm us. Those found in everyday items can leach into our food and bloodstreams. Those present within plastic wastes in rivers and oceans can be leached, absorbed, and bioaccumulated in the tissues of marine organisms, which we then consume. These chemicals can subsequently damage various parts of the human immune and reproductive systems and weaken intellectual functions. EDCs disrupt hormone functioning and can exacerbate or even cause health conditions such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and disturb neurological foetal and child development, as referenced in IPEN and the Endocrine Society publication titled “Plastics, EDCs & Health”.
Many changes must be made to tackle plastic pollution. Amendments were made in the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal in 2019 to include certain plastic wastes, increasing transparency and regulation of the waste trade. Though this is an admirable step forward, there are still some loopholes in the Basel Convention.
In addition, plastic production, waste management and disposal within the country have to be addressed. Otherwise, macro-, micro-, and nano-plastics and their invisible pollutants will continue to pollute our oceans unless further changes are made.
We need to address the full lifecycle of plastics as plastics are quietly damaging our oceans. A global and legally binding treaty on plastic pollution is critical to tackle plastic pollution and save our oceans.
For more information contact:
Sahabat Alam Malaysia, Honorary Secretary