FJA Shortlist 2021

Category: Excellence in Environmental Journalism

Author: Anna Geroeva (Russia)

On the Crest of a Toxic Wave

The original publication is available via the following link: 

On the Crest of a Toxic Wave

The world is drowning in plastic waste that has become part of the human food chain - August 13, 2020

English Translation

Uncontrolled production and unrestrained consumption of plastics are the reasons for the emergence of global garbage islands in the world's oceans. Their area is growing every day, poisoning the marine fauna. People around the world eat toxic seafood. The problem is aggravated by microplastics, the remains of which scientists find in drinking water and tissues of living beings. Despite this, no radical decisions are made to eliminate toxic pollution, as well as changes in the scale of production and consumption of polymers. But even if such measures were taken now, in 20 years more than 700 billion tons of such waste would remain on the planet.

Plastic feast

Waste plastics appeared in the world around the mid-50s of the last century. Over the past 70 years, their volume has grown several hundred thousand times and continues to grow. In the last century plastics production increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 360 million metric tons in 2018. «Our research has shown that the annual "leaks" of plastic into the ocean will almost triple by 2040. If 11 million metric tons are dumped into the world's oceans, then by 2040 this figure may increase to 30 million metric tons, "Sara Baulch, managing partner of Pew Charitable Trust, told Kommersant-Regeneration.

PlasticsEurope Market research Group estimates the growth of plastic production in the world from 348 million tons in 2017 to 360 million tons in 2018. According to Grand view research, the volume of the global plastics market in 2019 was estimated at $ 569 billion. Russia's contribution to the total production of polymers and products from them is not very large. However, in 2015–2019, their output in the Russian Federation grew by more than 22%, which is associated with both the modernization of existing production facilities and the launch of new capacities, and the total capitalization of the industry increased from 705.4 billion rubles. in 2015 to 910 billion rubles - in 2019, the Ministry of Industry and Trade reported.

The prerequisites for a global catastrophe are obvious. Over the past 50 years, plastic has become the most popular packaging material for many of the products we consume. It is durable, lightweight, presentable, and relatively cheap. Experts are convinced that this will continue to be so. “It dominates disposable packaging, shopping bags, ready-made containers and cutlery in restaurants and cafes. The modern world prefers plastic packaging to any other, the demand for it is growing. Every year, plastic waste grows by tens of millions of tons, and half of it comes from Asian countries, ”says Rob Watson, founder and co-chairman of the SWEEP solid waste management standard, to Kommersant-Regeneration. In February of this year, a group of scientists from the United States and Australia, led by Jenna Jambek, Ph.D. and environmental engineer at the University of Georgia, released a report on the current levels of plastic waste in the world. According to the document, most of all plastic waste is produced in Asian countries, in particular in China (about 30% of the world volume) and Indonesia. According to the study, China produced 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste, Indonesia 3.2 million tons, followed by the Philippines (1.9 million tons), Vietnam (1.8 million tons) and Sri Lanka (1.6 million tons). “There is more and more garbage, it is necessary to deal with it together and as soon as possible,” Jenna Dzhambek told Kommersant-Regeneration.

Plastic rivers, seas and islands

Scientists are investigating the sources of plastic waste and its circulation. According to the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, about 50% of the plastic waste that can be traced globally falls on landfills. There is another part - not obvious, which goes into the world ocean with the waters of rivers, and one can only guess about the volume of this part of pollution. “Rivers are turning into dirty arteries, contaminated by the world's oceans,” explains Christian Schmidt, a professor and hydrogeologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, to Kommersant-Regeneration. The results of the center, published in November 2019, show that 93% of all garbage in the global economy comes through ten rivers: Yangtze (dumps about 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea per year), Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur , Mekong, Indus and Ganges in Asia, and Niger and Nile. “Rivers, according to the most rough estimates, together discharge into the sea and into the oceans from 0.47 million to 2.75 million metric tons of plastic per year,” says Christian Schmidt. waste management process. Almost 500 million people live in the Yangtze basin alone - more than a third of the PRC population. " The discarded plastic debris travels a long way to get into the ocean's garbage dump. Plastic caught with river waters in the sea is picked up by currents, bringing it to the already accumulated garbage, and garbage rivers turn into garbage seas. Today, there are five gyres in the world's oceans that use plastic accumulation data. Each of these zones is formed by collisions of headwinds. According to a study conducted by scientists from six countries based on NGOs, the Institute of 5 circles, the largest of which is located in the Pacific Ocean - the Pacific Garbage Patch. The spot is located approximately in the North Pacific Ocean between 135-155 degrees north latitude and 35- 42 degrees north latitude. It consists of two parts: western, "Japanese", and eastern, "North American". It was discovered in 1997. Over the past 20 years, the spot has turned into a huge level, in area twice the size of Texas, with a size of about 524 thousand people. square miles. “The Pacific Island is located a thousand miles west of California and a thousand miles north of Hawaii in an area called the North Pacific hurricane, where currents from the equator, from North America and Asia move in sync, accumulating all the plastic waste into huge ... islands, ”explains Aleksey Kiselev. Another plastic debris stain was discovered in the Indian Ocean in 2010: hundreds of tons of plastic and other debris fall into it with the waters of the rivers and the Ganges. Around the same time, the North Atlantic garbage patch was discovered, which is now drifting in the Sargasso Sea. Garbage patches in the ocean are of anthropogenic origin, but a combination of meteorological and hydrological factors is formed. “From the whirlpools in the connection of the Pacific Ocean in relation to the collision of warm and arctic currents due to the rotation of the Earth. Plastic, thrown into the water in California, falls into the center of the whirlpool and, caught up by the current, the coastal environment of America occurs, where it is overtaken by the equatorial current and carried across the entire ocean to Japan. There, the garbage is picked up by the powerful northern current and enters the western part of the northern Pacific current, ”explains Markus Eriksen, Ph.D. and director of research, to Kommersant-Regeneration. Other scientists confirm that currents deliver plastic to the most inaccessible places. Some parts of the ocean have seven times more plastic open than fish Scientists of the Faculty of Geography of Moscow State University are accused, plastic debris threatens the world's oceans, polluted - islands of plastic appeared where they were not ten years ago: in the Arctic Ocean, on the Northern Sea Route, between Novaya Zemlya and Greenland, in the eastern regions of Greenland and Barents seas. “The planet is being filled with plastic waste,” concludes Professor Natalya Frolova, head of the Department of Land Hydrology, Faculty of Geography, Moscow State University. M.V. Lomonosov. The Arctic Ocean is a dead end for plastic waste entering the seas from northern countries. “The pole branch of the thermohaline circulation carries plastic to the Arctic Ocean, which drifts in the North Atlantic towards the Greenland and Barents Seas. This place on the globe is a dead end for debris - over time, currents will bring even more plastic debris here, and the slick will grow, ”explains Eric Van Sebil, oceanographer from Utrecht University, to Kommersant-Regeneration. “Until recently, researchers talked about five garbage islands in the world's oceans. Now there are already six such garbage cans. Their size is exceeded

The big problems of microplastics

The general name "plastic waste" implies a fairly wide range of substances. We are talking about thermoplastics, polyurethanes, thermosetting materials, elastomers, adhesives, coatings and sealants, polypropylene fibers, as well as PET fibers, polyacryl fibers and much more. A separate problem is microplastics, which are small, no more than 5 mm in size, plastic particles. These fragments enter ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics and clothing. "Microplastic accumulates in the environment in large quantities, especially in aquatic and marine ecosystems," Professor Natalya Frolova explains to Kommersant-Regeneration. The University's Association of Water Problems, which regularly conducts research on the topic, found that most of the microplastic debris that ends up in the ocean is made up of tiny pieces - each weighing less than one tenth the weight of a paper clip. “They are blown off from open landfills or dumped directly into the ocean. Some areas have a density of 520 thousand bits per square mile, or roughly 200 thousand bits per square kilometer. By comparison, the Great Pacific Landfill spots are

1.9 million bits per square mile, or roughly 750,000 bits of plastic per square kilometer (and several tens of feet below the surface), ”said Markus Eriksen. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, today there are two sources of microplastics entering the environment - surface runoff and sewage from treatment facilities. “There is much more plastic in everyday life than it seems. It is found in toothpaste, scrubs, cleaners and detergents. Microparticles increase the consumer properties of household chemicals. There is still no technological solution for capturing them in the wastewater treatment process in the world: the nature and size of the particles do not allow them to be recognized, ”Dmitry Kirillov explains to Kommersant-Regeneration. Microplastics are divided into industrial (primary) and natural (secondary). The first is granules or powder, which are added to cosmetics, household chemicals, hygiene products, and are also used in the production of fabrics, car tires and other goods. The second includes plastic objects that fall apart into small pieces under the influence of the environment. Microplastics in reservoirs are becoming more and more both in the world and in Russia. Scientists from the University of Basel conducted a study of the content of microplastics in the Rhine 810 km from Basel to Rotterdam and identified microplastics at all points where samples were taken. “The Rhine has turned out to be one of the most microplastic-polluted rivers: it brings more than 191 million plastic particles to the North Sea every day, which corresponds to about 25-30 kg per day and 10 tons per year. In Russia, the problem of microplastics is still very little studied. In 2018, a number of studies were carried out on the Gulf of Finland, as well as the Barents and Kara Seas. At the same time, today there is no information about any research that would be carried out in the rivers and lakes of Russia, ”says Markus Eriksen. Particles of plastic are capable of absorbing heavy metals in themselves, and also, due to fouling in the aquatic environment, biofilms are a vehicle for various bacteria, including pathogenic ones. “A lot of microplastics particles enter the human body every day; it has long entered the food chain. During the study by the researchers of the Institute of Lake Science of inland water bodies, microplastic particles were found in all samples of their bottom sediments, where its concentration turned out to be an order of magnitude higher than in the water column. The smallest particles of plastic enter the food chain through the communities of living organisms, "says Shamil Pozdnyakov, head of the RAS Institute of Lake Science, to Kommersant-Regeneration. Today, 97% of research on plastic and microplastics is devoted to the ocean, and only 3% is focused on inland water bodies. The proliferation of plastic is a consequence, it is necessary to solve problems at the early stages of its life cycle and impose restrictions on its use, ”Dmitry Kirillov is convinced. The actual scale of microplastic damage to Russian waters is still unknown. The Russian Academy of Sciences is investigating its distribution in water bodies of the country, working, among other things, on a method for identifying plastic microparticles in an extended range of sizes. Research has already been carried out on the Katun River, Teletskoye and Ladoga lakes, the Kuibyshev reservoir and other reservoirs. Scientists have found that the concentration of microplastic particles ranging in size from 100 microns to 5 mm in the water of Lake Ladoga is on average 0.5–1.0 pieces per liter. In the southern part of Lake Ladoga, the concentration of microplastics in bottom sediments ranged from 25 to 70 particles per liter. On the territory of the Neva Bay of the Gulf of Finland - 200 particles per liter. According to scientists from the RAS Institute of Lake Science, toxic substances, including bisphenol-A and phthalates, were found in microplastic particles. What is the concentration of harmful substances in the waters of other rivers and lakes - this is yet to be learned.

Plastic is out of control

The planet is drowning in plastic debris, experts unanimously say. It is possible to reduce the volume of plastic in landfills and in the oceans by reducing the level of its consumption. “We must stop using this material, and as soon as possible,” Amirkhan Magomedov, deputy head of Rosprirodnadzor, told Kommersant-Regeneration. However, the consumption of plastic is growing. Over the past five months, which the inhabitants of the planet have spent in self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of plastic waste has increased, but now medical waste has also been added to it. "At the end of February this year, Hong Kong-based OceansAsia discovered masses of surgical masks washed ashore on the Soko Islands," said Gary Stokes, director of operations for OceansAsia. Many countries tried to limit the use of plastic during the pandemic. In the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, the US government of Oregon has banned the use of single-use bags, and the UK has decided to charge again shipping fees for groceries ordered online. However, the authorities of Asian countries, which are the main polluters of the planet with plastic waste, are not taking restrictive measures. To understand how Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Vietnam and the Philippines (these countries most of all produce, supply and dispose of plastic waste) relate to this problem, UNEP (UN Environment Program) specialists from January to April of this year interviewed consumers and business representatives in these countries. 2 thousand consumers and 400 food industry enterprises were interviewed. 91% of those surveyed said that they are aware of the problem of plastic waste, but only 54% of them said that they sort waste. Business representatives turned out to be less conscientious than citizens. 82% of the surveyed enterprises are concerned about the problems of plastic pollution, but more than half of them believe that they themselves will not be able to cope with the solution of the problem of pollution. However, 51% of enterprises in these five Asian countries do not deal with the problem of collecting and recycling plastic waste in any way. In Vietnam, there are 76% of such enterprises, and in Thailand - almost 25%. Consumers and businesses are aware of the complexity of the situation and are waiting for solutions from the leadership of their countries. “Plastic pollution is choking the waters of Southeast Asia,” says Dechen Tsering, UNEP's regional director for Asia Pacific. The authorities of many states directly declare that it will be difficult to get rid of plastic addiction: thanks to such production, jobs are created, and production is a profitable business. In Russia, in 2019, the volume of production of plastic products increased by 6.2% in physical terms compared to 2018 and amounted to about 7 million tons, while GDP increased by only 1.3%. “In the first half of 2020, there was also a positive trend in the production of plastic products: the volume of production increased by an estimated 12.7% and amounted to about 3.9 million tons. Over the past five years, 13 large investment projects have been implemented, thanks to which an additional 860 jobs have been created. The total investment amounted to about 10.5 billion rubles. ", - said" Kommersant-Regeneration "in the Ministry of Industry and Trade. However, experts assure that there are economically viable ways to reduce plastic waste in the global economy. The first step is to stop using disposable plastic items. It is necessary to replace them with reusable ones, banning the packing of fruits in separate plastic bags, and instead of raw materials made of plastic, use compostable plastic made, for example, from seaweed or corn starch. “We produce more than 300 million tons of plastic per year, 50% of it is intended for single use,” says Guy Eames, head of the RuGBC Green Building Council, to Kommersant-Regeneration. Achievement of such goals is possible only with close cooperation between government and business. In June, As you Sow, a non-profit organization founded in 1992 with the aim of promoting industry, presented a report on the 50 largest companies that are phasing out the use of plastic in manufacturing. Based on the results of the study, a rating was compiled in which the first line was taken by Unilever, which intends to switch to the use of 100% recyclable plastic by 2025. The remaining 49 companies, including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, MacDonald's, are not yet ready to completely abandon plastic in production. If the existing procedure for handling plastic waste is maintained, the production of plastics will quadruple by 2050, since only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled in the world. “Companies are ultimately responsible for reducing plastic pollution,” said Konrad McCherron, senior vice president and lead author of the You Sow report. “But the consumer goods industry cannot solve the single-use plastics problem and take financial responsibility for improving waste recycling. Companies are not ready to work together to achieve.

Cut the plastic wave

While some steps are being taken to reduce plastic pollution, they are ineffective on the scale of the problem. And these measures were delayed by several decades. If the world were to make a consolidated effort to reduce plastic consumption right now, there would still be about 710 million metric tons of unrecovered plastic waste by 2040. This conclusion was reached by an international group of scientists, whose report was published on the Science portal in July. Bridging the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Ways to End Ocean Plastic Pollution, the report not only assesses the status of plastic waste, but also offers several scenarios. The main thing is to reduce the consumption of plastic, otherwise in 20 years the annual volume of plastic waste will grow from 11 million metric tons to 29 million metric tons. That is, on each meter of the coastline on the globe there will be 50 kg of plastic waste, and about 600 million tons of such waste will float in the ocean. But this is just one of the scenarios, which the study calls "Business as usual" (BAU - business as usually). To get out of this situation, scientists offer four more. The most optimistic of these is "System Change" (SCS) - a reduction in the production and consumption of plastic products. If it is implemented, the amount of waste dumped into the ocean will decrease by three times compared with the current indicators. Scenarios "Collection and Disposal" (CDS), "Recycling" (RES), "Reduction and Replacement" (RSS), according to scientists, will help reduce the level of plastic pollution in half. The authors of the report suggest several ways to solve the garbage problem. One of them is a radical reduction in the production and consumption of plastics, replacing plastic raw materials with paper or compostable materials. The second is the use of large quantities of biodegradable and recycled packaging. All of these measures will help save up to $ 70 billion by 2040, reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic by 25% and create 700,000 new jobs. If nothing is done, the problem of plastic pollution will become unmanageable. This is not an option, ”says Dr. Winnie Lau, co-author of the study and manager of the Pew Ocean Plastic Pollution Prevention Program. It is possible to solve the problem of littering the world's oceans with plastic if we establish a system for collecting plastic waste on land. The report notes that at least 500,000 people need to be involved in the waste collection system. If the collection system is left as it is, then the volume of plastic entering the ocean by 2040 will be reduced by only 7%, and almost 4 billion people will be bogged down in plastic waste. “It is impossible to recycle what you have not collected. We need to educate people about the link between the plastic dishes they use and the pollution of the oceans, ”says Ms. Lau, pointing out that existing technologies can reduce the flow of plastic into the oceans by 80%. Scientists emphasize that the implementation of the best scenario requires large investments - both technical and financial, because there is no simple and quick solution to the problem. “Breaking the plastic wave can only be done with swift and concerted action by the authorities of many countries and large companies,” summarizes Tom Dillon, Pew's vice president of the environment.

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