As an advocate for the health of fresh water, I always have mixed feelings entering a new year. Hope for the newness of what is to come, coupled with a realization that a new calendar doesn’t mean any of our environmental concerns have miraculously disappeared.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
A committee of representatives from the four corners of Earth are rolling up their sleeves to tackle a threat to the environment that has dominated headlines over the last few years — plastics. This is the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastic Pollution, and it’s expected to next meet in Paris in May.
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We can’t really underestimate the havoc wreaked on our planet from plastics pollution. And it will continue without any meaningful intervention.
I won’t recite an exhaustive laundry list, but I will point out that 85% of litter in our oceans comes from plastics (and that that is set to triple by 2040); the Great Lakes receive 22 million pounds of plastic debris every year; and thinking internationally, Uncle Sam generates more plastics trash than any other nation.
So, the INC’s aims are clearly noble, greatly necessarily and duly ambitious (negotiations need to be wrapped up by the end of 2024) given the scope of the problem they’re addressing. All good so far.
But if we have one stab at this colossal threat to the environment, and we’re convening the world’s government representatives in one room every six months, we need to get it right.
“ We can’t really underestimate the havoc wreaked on our planet from plastics pollution. And it will continue without any meaningful intervention. ”
As I followed the coverage of the conference online, there were a couple of glaring omissions in all of the—admittedly preliminary—conversations that concern me.
First up, we need to be talking about microplastics.
That term usually conjures up images of grainy face washes and abrasive toothpastes, but they’re really just any piece of plastic smaller than 5 mm in size.
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There are a lot of them in our water. And they’re very harmful to organisms. Researchers have found microplastics in terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric environments across the globe. That ubiquity means the contamination of hundreds of species of wildlife across all levels of the food web.
“If we’re convening the world’s government representatives in one room every six months, we need to get it right.”
Oh, and we don’t get to escape this either. In 2021, scientists had the dubious honor of being the first to discover microplastics in a human placenta.
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Second, we definitely need to be talking about fresh water.
The source of our drinking water, the resource on which an important portion of the U.S. economy is based and depends, and home for many diverse species across the continent—fresh water is perennially, and rather inexplicably, left out of these broad multilateral negotiations on the future of our environment.
And when it comes to plastics pollution, that’s a massive mistake.
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In 2019, around 32% of all plastic pollution leeched into aquatic environments, the bulk of which ended up in freshwater environments. And we managed to release 109 million metric tons of plastics into rivers and lakes globally between 1970 and 2019, nearly four times the amount we dumped into oceans.
“ Fresh water is perennially, and rather inexplicably, left out of these broad multilateral negotiations on the future of our environment. ”
“Multilateral negotiations” may sound cumbersome and bureaucratic, and thus ineffective, but recent history has show just how well they can work, when they are done right. Just think about our successes with the ozone layer and acid rain, to name but a few.
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As the INC negotiations crank up later this year (likely meeting in Paris in May), we need to make sure that we seize on this incredible opportunity to recognize the full scope of the threat that plastics pose, to ensure an outcome that effectively protects our environment for generations to come.
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Dimple Roy is the water management director at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.