- Open Access
Marine litter plastics and microplastics and their toxic chemicals components: the need for urgent preventive measures
© The Author(s) 2018
- Received: 14 September 2017
- Accepted: 28 March 2018
- Published: 18 April 2018
Persistent plastics, with an estimated lifetime for degradation of hundreds of years in marine conditions, can break up into micro- and nanoplastics over shorter timescales, thus facilitating their uptake by marine biota throughout the food chain. These polymers may contain chemical additives and contaminants, including some known endocrine disruptors that may be harmful at extremely low concentrations for marine biota, thus posing potential risks to marine ecosystems, biodiversity and food availability. Although there is still need to carry out focused scientific research to fill the knowledge gaps about the impacts of plastic litter in the marine environment (Wagner et al. in Environ Sci Eur 26:9, 2014), the food chain and human health, existing scientific evidence and concerns are already sufficient to support actions by the scientific, industry, policy and civil society communities to curb the ongoing flow of plastics and the toxic chemicals they contain into the marine environment. Without immediate strong preventive measures, the environmental impacts and the economic costs are set only to become worse, even in the short term. Continued increases in plastic production and consumption, combined with wasteful uses, inefficient waste collection infrastructures and insufficient waste management facilities, especially in developing countries, mean that even achieving already established objectives for reductions in marine litter remains a huge challenge, and one unlikely to be met without a fundamental rethink of the ways in which we consume plastics. This document was prepared by a working group of Regional Centres of the Stockholm and Basel Conventions and related colleagues intended to be a background document for discussion in the 2017 Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes and the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The COP finally approved that the issue of plastic waste could be dealt by its Regional Centres and consistently report their activities on the matter to next COP’s meetings.
- Plastic waste
- Endocrine disruptors
- Persistent organic pollutants
- Marine biodiversity
- Stockholm Convention
- Basel Convention
- Prevention measures
- Food security
Urgent measures needed on production and consumption of plastics and waste management
One urgent measure would be a global fully fledged efficient waste collection, management, recycling and environmentally sound disposal systems that would guarantee an almost zero plastic release to the environment. However, this seems a financially challenging and possibly decades-long endeavour. Moreover, while such an infrastructure could be economically feasible in industrial countries, it may not be feasible or cost-effective for developing nations . In addition, the exponentially increasing global trend of plastic production and consumption, in a context of global financial crisis, makes extremely uncertain the ability to achieve already established objectives of reduction of marine litter26 at global, regional, sub-regional or national levels. Furthermore, the more frequent and strong flooding events in the different world regions facilitate the flushing of plastic to waters in developing countries but also in industrial countries since plastic waste just get flushed away.
Therefore, urgent and strong actions with relatively low public investment are needed at global level, i.e. policy reforms including extended producer responsibility (EPR) and fiscal and economic instruments. A prevention and ‘Best Available Techniques and Practices’ approach, built on a holistic life cycle basis, could allow scarce resources and effort to be focused on measures that are very likely to reduce the problem by directly attacking the source, similar to the way in which industrial toxic emissions were effectively curbed in some developed countries at the end of the last century, instead of relying on ‘end-of-pipe’ solutions, e.g. focusing only on cleaning measures such as ‘fishing for—floating macro—plastic’, which are not efficient and economically viable in an oceanic scale27 and which do not stop the continuous inputs of plastic, the already existing microplastic pollution or sunk plastics or by only assessing and monitoring how much worse the problem it is getting .
Although there is still need to carry out focused scientific research to fill the knowledge gaps about the impacts of plastic litter in the marine environment , the food chain and human health, the precautionary principle, the already existing scientific evidence and reasonable concerns should be enough to support actions by the scientific, industry, policy and civil society communities to curb the leaking of plastics into the marine environment in the short term. To think in terms of “business as usual” and “adaptation measures” to cope with plastic pollution in the oceans instead of prevention and mitigation measures would lead to another predictable environmental crisis for future generations to cope with. The dangers of working in isolation are already apparent from industry-centred responses such as the development of “oxo-degradable” plastic products, which merely take out of sight plastics by fragmenting them at the end of their lifetime into numerous small but essentially non-degradable pieces .
Strong policy actions to curb unnecessary plastic packaging on the demand side on the short term, such as the ban on free single-use plastic bags, or to substantially increase the collection rate of plastic waste, such as the deposit-refund schemes for plastic beverage bottles28 which have a demonstrated high rate of success in many countries,29 and the ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products, are strongly needed at regional, sub-regional or national levels as part of their strategies for waste management. Initiatives to promote measurement of the types and quantities of plastic used by companies or communities, such as the ‘Plastic Disclosure Project’,30 could facilitate accountability and the implementation of measures to reduce avoidable plastic use by the private and public sectors. Designers and producers should avoid creating products that are inherently single use or inevitably destined for landfill .
Other measures to consider in developing countries or remote rural communities of Africa, America or Pacific SIDS, with no or few environmentally sound disposal facilities, would be, for example, the take back or repatriation schemes of plastic waste under extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, specially for food and beverage plastic packaging, given the clear benefits of plastic versus other packaging materials in reducing the total amount of packaging (in tonnes), as well as the energy required for transportation on the long-haul shipments and the food losses.
Campaigns to make plastic litter socially unacceptable and educate consumers across the supply chain would be necessary elements of any policy of awareness on waste. Designing for recycling would allow to divert important volumes of plastic waste from the waste management systems. It is necessary to work with companies and research institutes, especially in the food sector, to optimize food packaging and materials to avoid unnecessary use of persistent plastics and toxic chemicals. Strong policy actions, as well as more research, development and innovation in green chemistry are needed for the substitution of POPs, EDC and other toxic substances in plastics as well as for the development of more benign alternatives to persistent polymers in the marine environment.
It is important to highlight that compostable bioplastics or plastics labelled as ‘biodegradable in the environment’ are not degraded in marine conditions, where parameters such as temperature, oxygen, and salinity are very different that those expected in a composting process, and so they have equivalent properties in the marine environment in this regard as persistent plastics.31 Other innovative materials, such as marine biodegradable polymers, especially for food packaging, could have an important role to play in reducing the environmental damage of plastics leaking to the marine environment, but the biodegradability in marine environment of such alternative plastics (such as the polyhydroxyalkanoates, PHAs) would require further study and validation under a range of conditions in seawater, and internationally accepted certification seals. Further avenues of research on these biomaterials would be to study their complete lifecycle (e.g. to ensure that they do not compete with food production, best options to recycle), potential harms by ingestion to marine biota, and its rate of adsorption of HOC in seawater before its degradation compared with other adsorbing media in the marine environment, including persistent plastics.
Implementing or improving environmentally sound waste collection and management systems of urban waste represents a basic necessary step to reducing plastic inputs, especially in developing economies. Special attention should be paid to avoid creating further environmental and health impacts, for example, by promoting non-best available technology (BAT) waste incineration of plastics without tight environmental controls, which may be an important identified source of POPs, such as dioxins and furans. Effective mandatory or voluntary measures are urgently needed to curb the consumption of single-use plastics, as well as the urgent banning of microplastics in all types of cosmetics and personal care products, even in those countries with 100% coverage of tertiary WWTP.
The actual levels of POPs in marine plastics collected from the sea should be taken into consideration when deciding on management options for marine waste, including recycling.
The implementation of action plans to reduce the input of marine plastic around the world needs to involve all stakeholders from the local and national authorities to international bodies, the scientific community, plastic manufacturers and retailers, tourism and fishing industries, NGOs, etc., to effectively address socio-economic and environmental issues related to plastic pollution from a sustainable and global point of view .
Potential measures suggested in the framework of the Stockholm and Basel Conventions to address marine litter
Contribution from the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs)
To acknowledge plastic marine litter as an issue of global environmental and health concern, due to its persistence, wide geographical distribution and long-range transport capacity of persistent and toxic chemicals in the marine environment.
- 1.To take into account the risks of additives in plastics with endocrine disruptor properties when selecting and assessing substances for the listing of new POPs in the Stockholm Convention. Some plastic additives with endocrine disruptive properties which might not pass some of the POPs screening criteria such as persistence in water in standard laboratory conditions, are expected to have longer half-life in the plastic due to the protection (or molecular encapsulation) within the polymer matrix, and may have even longer half-life in the marine environment, due to its physical and chemical properties such as lower temperatures, lower oxygen levels, salinity, pH, and lower levels of light in water column and sea floor and sediments, i.e. theoretically “non-persistent” chemical additives or trace monomers in plastics (such as alkylphenols, phthalates, BPA) have been detected in high concentrations in floating polyethylene and polypropylene plastic—the most widely used in packaging—in open oceans [18, 58, 60, 69]. In addition, apart from their mobility and fluxes through all the compartments of the marine environment , the new inputs of ‘fresh’ plastic into the marine environment is so continuous and widespread through all the oceans that would be equivalent to the continental or oceanic long-range transport property of highly persistent POPs. Their exposure to marine biota is relevant due to
The very low doses of EDCs required to affect the endocrine systems in marine biota and humans , compared to those required in toxicological tests to prove carcinogenicity in candidate POPs, especially during the embryo and developing stages,
The uptake of microplastics containing those chemicals by marine biota, which may affect biodiversity, food security, food availability and potentially human health, especially if the persistent plastic consumption and production follows the expected growing trends in the coming decades (see Fig. 1), without the necessary environmentally sound waste management and collection facilities being in place globally to avoid plastic leaking into the oceans.
- 2.The introduction of measures to reduce marine plastic litter in National Implementation Plans for the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, such as
Promoting substitution and green chemistry to avoid POPs and other harmful chemicals in plastics, especially EDCs.
Encouraging plastic waste prevention and supporting development and implementation of safer or more benign alternatives to persistent plastics in the marine environment.
Supporting research on environmental and health impacts of marine plastics, microplastics and nanoplastics and related fate of EDCs and POPs.
Encouraging ecodesign for better packaging recyclability.
Encouraging plastic waste recycling when feasible.
Promoting BATs to reduce plastic leakage to oceans and improving information on input loads, sources and originating sectors.
Encouraging the improvement and efficiency of collection and sound environmental management of waste.
Encouraging changes in consumption and littering behaviour.
Contribution from the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes
To acknowledge plastic marine litter as an issue of global environmental and health concern, due to its persistence, wide geographical distribution and long-range transport capacity of toxic chemicals in the marine environment and the need to address it by improvement of waste management and other means.
To include measures to avoid or reduce marine plastic litter in the Strategic Framework for the implementation of the Basel Convention.
Revising Annexes I and III of the Convention to ensure the listing of all chemicals with endocrine disruptor substances (EDCs) in plastics that may end up as microplastic waste in the marine environment.
The adoption of new guidelines on environmental sound management of plastic and plastic containing wastes, with a view to minimize the possibility of plastic leaks into the oceans coming from waste management.
Reviewing policies related to the export of plastic containing waste to countries where no environmentally sound recycling, recovery or final disposal of the plastic materials contained in the waste are guaranteed, i.e. uncontrolled recycling of plastics with toxic chemicals, waste disposal in non-BAT open dumps, or incinerated in cement furnaces with no environmental controls, or non-BAT incinerators without tight environmental measures and controls like dioxin catalyzers, continuous outflow monitoring and sound environmental landfilling of its ashes.
Ensuring the best available techniques and best environmental practices are recommended in Basel Convention waste guidelines and manuals to avoid disposal methods that might re-release toxic chemicals into the air, water or soils to safeguard the health of neighbouring communities.
Developing efficient strategies for achieving the prevention and minimization of the generation of marine plastic litter.
Dissemination, information and training activities to improve awareness and knowledge on the risks and challenges posed by marine plastic litter and on measures to combat it.
Technical assistance and capacity-building activities to support parties and other stakeholders in implementing waste management and efficient waste collection measures to reduce plastic marine litter.
Develop recommendations to review regional and national regulatory frameworks concerning plastic and plastic containing wastes and inclusion of measures to prevent plastic waste, such as measures to reduce plastic bags consumption and establishment of Deposit and Return schemes for beverage packaging.
To promote innovation and technology transfer to avoid persistent plastics and sound chemical substitution of toxic components in plastic packaging and other plastics, encouraging plastic waste prevention and supporting development and implementation of safer or more benign alternatives to persistent plastics in the marine environment.
To assist developing countries, economies in transition and Small Island Developing States with efficient collection and environmentally sound management of plastic waste and plastic packaging, which they are unable to dispose of or recycle in an environmentally sound manner but continue to receive nonetheless, including through take back or repatriation policies under extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.
Among the most common polymers found in the marine environment are low density polyethylene (PE-LD), linear low-density polyethylene (PE-LLD), high-density polyethylene (PE-HD), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
The total estimated biomass of fish of 10 g per individual and upwards in the oceans is 529 million tonnes , which puts the magnitude of the problem of plastics in the oceans into perspective.
Other exogenous causes are natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and tsunamis.
There are other sources of polymers that are not considered in this paper such as cigarette butts; tyre and road wear; and artificial turf infill.
This was a strong argument for the law banning microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products in the US in 2015 (Microbead-Free Waters Act).
83% of the sampled crustacean Nephrops norvegicus in the Sea of Clyde (Scotland) contained plastics (predominately filaments) in their stomachs .
The study of transformations of matter and energy in systems as they approach equilibrium.
The taking in of matter by a living cell by invagination of its membrane.
Polymers can also be broken up into monomers by UV radiation, mechanical action, heat and other chemicals .
Substances that were added intentionally in the virgin polymer and that are incorporated unknowingly or unwillingly when the plastic waste is recycled.
The SIN (Substitute It Now!) List, developed by ChemSec, identifies 32 EDCs of high concern that would require immediate action towards substitution, and 14 more chemicals with ED properties and additional hazardous properties as well. http://chemsec.org/business-tool/sin-list/ (Accessed Mar 2017).
A fact that should be taken into account when assessing EDC effects in animal models.
TBBPA degrades to Bisphenol A and to TBBPA dimethyl ether. Bisphenol A and phthalates are rapidly metabolised once ingested but their concentration within the tissues varies between species for the same exposure.
Short-chained chlorinated paraffins are listed in Annex A (elimination) of the Stockholm Convention since May 2017.
PCBs and PCNs have been used to some extent as flame retardants in cables and other polymers including PVC coatings for corrosion protection. Such coatings are sometimes removed from bridges and dams by abrasive blasting and end up in rivers and the sea.
PFCs in the environment can last for millions of years.
Marine paint containing tributyltin was forbidden by the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems in Ships (enter into force in 2008), signed by most of the countries.
Teuten et al.  tested the sorption uptake and desorption kinetics of HOCs in different polymers in laboratory conditions, showing that glassy polymers such as PVC exhibit larger sorption capacities and slower HOC release rates than rubbery polymers such as high-density polyethylene. Mato et al.  showed that polyethylene has higher affinity than polypropylene for HOCs.
This finding suggests a new non-invasive method, which is to use the PAEs found in plankton as tracers of the exposure/ingestion in cetaceans or other endangered species.
Articles with any substance listed under the Stockholm Convention, such as HBCDD used mainly in EPS/XPS polymers, are not allowed to undergo recycling processes, except articles (plastics) with hexa-, hepta-, tetra- or pentabromodiphenyl ethers that would allow some countries to recycle them until 2030, under a exemption of the Convention.
For example, 50% of the plastic waste collected for recycling in the EU is exported to third countries with no sound environmental waste management guarantees (source Plastic Recyclers Europe).
Precautionary principle by virtue of which where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
The Endocrine Society has recently stated that: “… data reviewed in EDC-2 removes any doubt that EDCs are contributing to increased chronic disease burdens related to obesity, diabetes mellitus, reproduction, thyroid, cancers, and neuroendocrine and neurodevelopmental functions” .
The Honolulu Strategy, the global framework to prevent marine litter, does not prescribe specific marine debris reduction targets but expects “substantial progress” by 2030. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number 14 (Sustainable Oceans) aims to “prevent and significantly reduce” marine litter in 2025. In the European Union, a 30% reduction for beach litter by 2025, compared with 2015 levels, has been proposed for all its regional seas.
Clean-up may be a suitable last resort for addressing marine litter in limited zones such as urban areas, tourist beaches and ports where the litter causes severe social and economical damage , or in marine special protected areas (SPAs).
Plastic beverage bottles represent around 20% of all plastic packaging waste in the EU.
Compared with the relatively low and stagnate rates of curbside separate collection of plastic packaging waste, with the added benefit of delivering a high-quality product ready for recycling .
Biodegradation according to EN13432 is considered to be complete if at least 90% of the material has been converted into carbon dioxide (the remainder is due to the fact that besides carbon dioxide, water and biomass are produced during biodegradation).When all the organic carbons in the polymer are converted, it is referred as complete mineralisation.
Frederic Gallo and Dolores Romano wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All the authors contributed on specific aspects. All the authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors would like to acknowledge the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS), and specially Francesca Cenni, for their organizational facilitation and support; to Agustina Camilli, of the Permanent Mission of Uruguay to the UN Office in Geneva and to Gabriela Medina, from the Regional Centre in Uruguay; to Ana Garcia, the Spanish delegate to the COP; to Melissa Wang of Greenpeace Science Lab of Exeter University, and to Guiulia Carlini, of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), for their ideas, support and invaluable help in bringing forward the issue to the delegates of the countries and to the Plenary of the BRS Conventions.
The authors want to thank the reviewers for their valuable and constructive comments and suggestions which helped to improve the manuscript.
Special mentions to Martin Scheringer, of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH); Carolina Pérez, of Coastal & Marine Union- Mediterranean Centre in Spain; to Sandra Averous and Feng Wang, of UN Environment Economy Division in France; to Frank Griffin, Director of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP); to Leila Devia, Director of the Basel Convention Regional Centre for South America, and Dana Lapešová, Director of the Basel Convention Regional Centre in Slovakia, for their ideas and support to the paper.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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For coordinating the working group, Dolores Romano is grateful for the financial support of SCP/RAC Barcelona.
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