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Plastic flow: can land-based pollution be stopped?

Some estimates suggest that at current rates, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050 Some estimates suggest that at current rates, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050
29 Jul
Asian countries are pledging to reduce the amount of land-based marine pollution, especially that flowing down their larger rivers

Goal 14 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals pledges to ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.’

Accordingly, June’s UN Ocean Conference in New York focused on adopting a universal ‘Call to Action’ to achieve such a pledge, compiling a list of 1,380 varying voluntary commitments made by the 178 UN members in attendance, generally focusing on such targets as protecting coastal ecosystems, addressing illegal fishing, reducing underwater noise, and – crucially – eliminating sources of land-based, plastic marine pollution. Such pollution is not created equally, with a significant proportion believed to emanate from a select number of large rivers, primarily in Asia. ‘Plastic pollution of rivers is related to human settlement,’ explains Dr Christian Schmidt, from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany. ‘It is not necessarily bad waste management that makes rivers such as the Yangtze deliver a lot of plastic, but rather the sheer amount of people that live in the catchment.’

Therefore, voluntary commitments by some of the worst offenders included promises to stop plastic entering those few rivers which transport waste plastic downstream to the ocean. Thailand, for example, pledged to implement proper waste disposal and encourage environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging as part of its recent 20-year pollution management strategy. Indonesia pledged to reduce plastic waste by 70 per cent by 2025, while India highlighted Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Namami Gange’ scheme, which aims to eradicate waste from the Ganges River.

However, the issue, as Schmidt explains, is that very little is known about what happens to plastic dumped into rivers regarding its fragmentation during transit, and how long it actually takes to reach the mouth. ‘If we have already loaded our river sediments and banks with plastic debris,’ he adds, ‘this might be a long-term source for plastic in the oceans, even if we manage to drastically reduce the release of plastic into the environment.’

This was published in the August 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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