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From pollution to solution – are we there yet?

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By Tongai Kunorubwe
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6 minute read

The history of plastic is full of important inventions that have changed many parts of our lives.

From everyday convenience to a danger to the planet, it is a material thatcontinues to shape our world. As plastic use has grown, so have the environmental concerns. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) argues succinctly that plastic pollution “can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change, directly affecting millions of people’s livelihoods, food production capabilities and social well‐being.”

Globally, about one million plastic bottles are bought every minute and up to five trillion plastic bags are used every year. Half of the plastic that is produced is designed for single-use purposes. Plastic can be seen easily everywhere in our natural environment. It is becoming part of the Earth’s fossil and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era.

A threat multiplier

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The scale of global plastic pollution is significant and growing, that has gone from a de minimis quantity prior to 1950 to a staggering 60m tons in 2020. Regrettably, less than 10 per cent of plastic waste is ever recycled, with most plastic waste discarded or incinerated. The challenge of discarded plastic waste has proven to be pervasive, with plastic debris found in the deepest part of the world’s ocean including the Marina Trench and embedded in snow and water in the world’s highest peaks including on Mt. Everest.

A further challenge with discarded plastic is that it takes between 20-500 (not a typo) years for plastic to decompose, regrettably even then it does not vanish but simply gets broken down into smaller and smaller particles. Current scientific research shows that concerningly these smaller particles are increasingly ending up in human blood, where a recent peer reviewed study showed these to be present in ~80 per cent of people assessed; in the placentas of human babies; and embedded in human lung tissue. Thus, the adverse impact of plastic on human health is likely to be material.

In parallel, plastic is a material contributor to greenhouse gases (GHG) emission and climate change. The production, conversion and waste management of plastic generates about 4 per cent of GHG emissions. Of these, 90 per cent can be qualified to the production and conversion stage of the plastics lifecycle.

In 2019, total GHG emissions related to fossil-based plastics throughout their lifecycle were 1.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2 e), or 3.4 per cent of global emissions. With increasing plastics use and waste, these emissions are projected to more than double by 2060, reaching 4.3 GtCO2 e.

To be clear, reducing plastic-related emissions alone will be far from sufficient, to achieve ambitious climate mitigation goals such as net-zero emissions, butnevertheless represents a key component on the road map to achieving these goals.

Put simply, plastic pollution is a “threat multiplier”. This is a term borrowed from the US military, because not only does plastic have standalone adverse consequences, but also has the potential to exacerbate many existing challenges such as those focused on human health, the biodiversity crisis, and GHG emissions.

Impact on Marine Life

Marine plastic pollution is increasingly recognised as a significant threat to marine ecosystems, including phytoplankton, which are the foundation of the marine food web. If phytoplankton are affected by plastic pollution, it can have cascading effects through the food web, impacting the species that feed on them and the overall health of marine ecosystems.

Marine animals often ingest plastic debris, mistaking it for food. This can increase physical harm, and lead to blockages in the digestive system, malnutrition, and even death. Additionally, animals can become entangled in larger plastic items like nets and six-pack rings, leading to injury, impaired movement, and drowning.

Plastic in the ocean breaks down into microplastics, which are small plastic pieces less than 5mm long, which are swallowed by a wide range of marine organisms. They made up 88 percent of global plastic leakage to the environment in 2019, around 20 million metric tons, polluting all ecosystems. When phytoplankton encounter these
contaminated microplastics, they can absorb these toxic substances, which can affect their growth and reproduction.

An estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises a year die from ghost nets. A recent study done by University of Exeter found that all seven species of sea turtle from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea had traces of microplastics in their gut. Plastic debris is said to cause the deaths of more than a million seabirds each year. In a meta study conducted across over 100 scientifically robust studies on fish and plastic ingestion among 508 fish species, over two- thirds of these had records of plastic ingestion. Explicitly, fish often mistake small plastic pieces, such as pellets, for food with often catastrophic consequences.

Plan of action

The increasing impact from marine litter has created international concern over the effect on marine ecosystems. Whilst quite clearly much more needs to be done, as the scale of the plastic pollution challenge is increasingly understood, we have started to see some signs of global co-operation aim to tackle plastic pollution. As illustrative, in March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a historic resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument with the ambition to complete negotiations by the end of 2024.

Similarly, also in March 2022, the Declaration of The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Environment Ministerial Meeting committed to develop comprehensive and coherent lifecycle approaches to tackle plastic pollution and promote co-operation internationally. Importantly, the same OECD meeting took a system thinking approach, emphasizing the interconnectedness of the climate and the plastic waste pollution challenges, featuring them in this instance as dual central focus areas.

Ultimately, cleaning up plastic pollution from marine environments is a costly and ongoing process. This includes the removal of large debris, restoration of habitats, and mitigation of long-term environmental damage. The degradation of marine ecosystems results in the loss of valuable services such as carbon sequestration, water purification, and coastal protection, which have significant economic implications. Despite the scale of the challenge, we cannot be discouraged and in fact we need to be intentional in helping crowd in capital into this mission critical area.

Latterly, we have started to see unique capital market backed solutions, where the bond market for example brings its heft towards funding resilient plastic waste collection and recycling projects, in this instance through contingent payout instruments.

Final thought

Climate change, the biodiversity challenge, and plastic pollution are among the most pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century. Addressing these issues requires systematic thinking and comprehensive joined-up strategies. Collective efforts from governments, businesses, and individuals are essential to mitigate these environmental threats.

Tongai Kunorubwe, head of ESG, fixed Income, T. Rowe Price