Curbing demand for plastics is best way to overcome the problem, say scientists

An international group of scientists has cautioned against relying on plastic removal technologies to address the plastic pollution crisis. Instead, they urge that we must focus on prevention, not symptom management.

World leaders are currently preparing to resume discussions at the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution. It will be held at UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, from 13 to 19 November.

The goal is to develop a United Nations Treaty on Plastic Pollution – an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

Among the thematic side events at the meeting are three which explicitly allocate debate to promoting sustainable consumption and production of plastics.

But one group of scientists is urging that it is much more effective to curb demand for plastics rather than have to deal with the problems they create.

“The discussions regarding the UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution should focus on lowering the dependence and production of virgin plastic materials, particularly from fossil fuels, and towards zero waste,” says co-author Dr Hans Peter Arp, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

In a review of the research literature published in the journal One Earth, Arp and other experts in plastic pollution warn that the environmental costs of leaving plastic pollution in the ocean should be weighed against the full environmental and economic cost of trying to remove it.

Ghoose barnacles colonising an abandoned fishing net float found within the great pacific garbage patch credit melanie bergmann 850
Ghoose barnacles colonising an abandoned fishing net float found within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Credit: Melanie Bergmann

“If the discussions instead focus on creating plastic offset schemes based on plastic removal technologies to offset waste and emissions, the treaty will not be effective at slowing this global crisis,” Arp says.

They caution that the overall impact of plastic removal technologies on the ocean may potentially be more harmful than helpful.

“So far, we lack hard evidence on the net benefits of plastic removal technologies,” says lead author Dr Melanie Bergmann, from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

“On the contrary, there is often bycatch mortality associated with these technologies, which becomes a problem if scaled up. We have to scrutinise these technologies by applying science-based criteria to prevent regrettable outcomes,” Bergman says.

Dr Rebecca R Helm of Georgetown University, another co-author of the paper, adds: “Plastic pollution is dangerous for the environment because it disrupts normal environmental processes. But cleanup technologies only add to this disruption.

“We need ecologically safe and sound solutions, and we need them upstream. Once plastic is in the environment, it’s hard to remove without doing more damage,” she says.

Without action to curb demand, increase product lifespans and improve waste management and recyclability, plastic pollution is set to almost triple by 2060.

“If we focus on cleanup as a solution to plastic pollution we condemn future generations to continue contaminating the environment and cleaning up as an afterthought. The UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution needs systemic upstream solutions focused on prevention, not symptom management,” says co-author Professor Richard Thompson, from the University of Plymouth, UK.

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