Plastic: A latent threat
By: Yajaira Castillo Acosta y Edson Marín Jara
Over the last century, plastics have become one of the most ubiquitous synthetic materials due to their versatility and durability. Every year between 19 and 23 million tons of plastics are discarded into the environment (Borrelle et al., 2020) and an estimated 40% of plastics worldwide are designed for single-use being one of the significant contributors to global solid waste (Walker et al., 2021a).
One of the products that we use the most is plastic bags, which were introduced in the late 1970s and over time have become a threat to our planet since they take between 500 and 1,000 years to degrade naturally, in that sense, their permanence in ecosystems is prolonged and, therefore, it cohabits with other organisms, causing them to suffocate when they ingest it by mistake (Wang & Li, 2021); another problem is that plastic bags break down into microparticles (plastic particles less than 5 mm in length), which also reach the food chain directly (Rocha-Santos et al., 2015).
About the latter, they have currently been identified in urban areas (Knobloch et al., 2021) and remote regions around the world (Brahney et al., 2020) due to transit between marine, terrestrial and atmospheric environments (Brahney et al., 2021) allowing them to reach regions far from anthropogenic sources, such as the arctic (Bergmann et al., 2019), alpine regions, conservation areas and even the depth of marine sediments (Van Cauwenberghe et al., 2013).
New research recently published by Aves, A.R. et al. (2022) describe for the first time in history the discovery of tiny remains of plastic in the fresh snow of almost twenty remote places on the frozen continent, Antarctica. The finding demonstrates the threat that the presence of microplastics represents in the life cycles of species and organisms on the continent; the researchers found 29 microplastic particles per liter of snow, reflecting that plastic pollution has reached even the most remote places in the world.
Another of the great problems of single-use plastic is marine pollution that kills more than a million birds and more than 100,000 mammals a year (ONU, 2021), almost 80% of marine plastic litter originates from land-based sources (Jambeck et al., 2015), indicating the importance of strategies targeting leakage on lands, such as better waste management or reduced use of plastic.
There are currently no precise statistics on the number of single-use plastic bags generated annually in Peru, but according to some estimates, between 500 million and 3 billion plastic bags could be generated per year (Sara Purca, 2017); so, what should we do to fix these problems? Global transformational change is required, to date, multiple solutions have been proposed, for example, Chaudhry & Sachdeva (2021), suggest continuing to bet on bio-based and biodegradable plastics, however, these must go hand in hand with national strategies and action plans on waste and that promote the circular economy; Leal Filho et al. (2019) examine the role of extended producer responsibility (EPR) with a focus on incorporating plastics collection and recycling into sustainable circular business models; likewise, Steinhorst et al. (2021) highlight the participation of the government and companies in the creation of sustainable and reusable alternatives, and political measures to regulate the market.
In Peru, there is Law N°30884, which regulates single-use plastic and disposable containers or packaging, approved on December 19, 2018, and its regulations DS N° 006-2019-MINAM, published on August 23, 2019 (Law N° 30884, 2018), but the truth is that whatever the measures adopted to deal with the use of single-use plastic will be ineffective if there is not a cultural change in people's mentality where each citizen takes responsibility for their actions. In short, part of the commitment is to promote research that allows the detection, sampling, analysis, and characterization of microplastics in other ecosystems, since this enhances current knowledge about these pollutants as their source, destination, or transport (Wong et al., 2020).
In this sense, education and awareness play a preponderant role in the fight against plastic pollution which, according to data from the United Nations (2021), in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the water, and in 2040 there will be around 50 kg of plastic per square meter of coastline worldwide plus a $100 billion annual financial risk to companies if governments require them to cover waste management costs in expected volumes.
The presence of microplastics in the natural and human environment already registers high levels of toxicity and great migration in ecosystems and less thoughtful places, which constitutes an emerging contaminant that understanding and controlling is a challenge, however, the change to limit the pollution of the ecological environment and human health is in our hands. A lot of political, business, and social will is needed to reach concrete, strict and effective agreements to face an enemy that sooner or later will take much more strength, thus representing a risk to food security, public health, and the habitat in other ways of life.
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