Connecting the dots on plastic pollution

A world-leading scientist at the University of Plymouth has welcomed a new report highlighting that the predicted rise in plastic pollution spilling into the environment constitutes a planetary emergency.

Connecting the Dots: Plastic pollution and the planetary emergency was written by Tom Gammage, a BSc (Hons) Marine Biology graduate from 2014 who is now an ocean campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

It pulls together recent scientific data on the broad impact of plastics on climate, biodiversity, human health and the environment and warns that only a robust global treaty for plastics can address the problem.

The report also says humankind’s addiction to plastic – and failure to prevent it contaminating the food web – directly undermines human health, drives biodiversity loss, exacerbates climate change and risks generating large-scale harmful environmental changes.

The report has been welcomed by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, who said it presents a rounded perspective on the issue of plastic pollution. He said:

“This report reaches a conclusion that like other global environmental challenges, such as the threats to biodiversity and climate change, the underlying cause of the plastics problem is rooted in unsustainable levels of production and consumption. A new global plastics treaty, with a legally binding instrument to address the full lifecycle of plastic, would potentially mirror existing approaches on climate and biodiversity. Such an initiative could considerably help prioritise and focus attention; and has the potential to guide the way to lasting solutions.”

Connecting the Dots has been released ahead of a major UN Environment Assembly meeting in Nairobi, scheduled to take place later this year, at which it is anticipated every nation’s relationship with plastic will be redefined and decided.

It makes recommendations on how to enforce multidimensional, long-term and collaborative policy which considers plastic pollution as a planetary boundary threat and takes into account its knock-on impacts on other environmental crises.

<p>BSc (Hons) Marine Biology graduate Tom Gammage</p>

BSc (Hons) Marine Biology graduate Tom Gammage

After graduating from the University in 2014, Tom worked in Indonesia, Costa Rica and Madagascar before joining the EIA in 2019. He said:

“The visible nature of plastic pollution has generated huge public concern but the vast majority of plastic pollution impacts are invisible. The damage done by rampant overproduction of virgin plastics and their lifecycle is irreversible. This is a threat to human civilisation and the planet’s basic ability to maintain a habitable environment.”

Read more about Tom's work with the Environmental Investigation Agency

A joined-up approach to plastics

Professor Richard Thompson says:

“After more than 30 years working on the issue of plastics in the environment, one thing that has changed is the level of consensus about the issue. Twenty years ago, discussion and debate revolved around bringing together evidence of the problem itself. Today there is almost universal agreement that the accumulation of end-of-life plastics presents a major environmental challenge. Where there is less clarity is on exactly how to address that challenge.
"It is an enduring frustration that the overarching solutions of reduce, re-use and recycle have been known for decades. Yet we are still lacking some of the basic information to guide us as to in which context to apply either of these solutions and how those solutions will vary from one country to another, for example in relation to the available waste management infrastructure. That evidence needs to consider potential unintended negative consequences, including the effects on biodiversity and climate.
“The Environmental Investigation Agency report calls for the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop a new global plastics treaty with a legally binding instrument to address the full lifecycle of plastic. The devil will, as always, be in the detail and consideration of the full life cycle will be essential.

<p>Richard Thompson</p>

Professor Richard Thompson OBE

“Advocating policies that merely promote the use of plastics that are ‘recyclable’ will not be effective unless there is local infrastructure that can collect, separate, and viably recycle those plastics in practice. Similarly, advocating polices to promote the use of ‘compostable’ plastics will only be effective if there is appropriate local infrastructure to handle that waste stream. 
"Equally important is the need to devise, certify and protect clear messaging so that it is possible, for example, to easily and consistently distinguish between a product that is merely technically ‘recyclable’ from one that is actually locally recycled in practice.”

Read more information linked to this article

International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea.

Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions

Find out more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit
Marine litter

The Queen's Anniversary Prize for pioneering research 

Nearly two decades of world-leading research into the effects of marine plastics on our environment by Plymouth researchers, led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, has resulted in repeated scientific breakthroughs which has influenced national and international legislation.

This ground-breaking research and subsequent policy impact on microplastics pollution in the oceans has once again been recognised – this time with the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a higher education institution – a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

Find out more about our recognition for the discovery of microplastics

<p>The Queen's Anniversary Prize 2019 logo</p>
Lecture on a beach on the Portugal field course