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From the Arctic depths to the Pyrenees, plastic waste has pervaded every corner of Earth. Plastics are a clear, visible, and established cause of pollution both on land and in water. More than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tonnes are estimated to be floating around the globe, and ocean currents have accumulated them in areas like the “Great Pacific garbage patch” now covering an area larger than Greenland. Agricultural land, surface water, freshwater lakes, and river sediments have all been reportedly contaminated by discarded plastic and plastic particles. Particles under five millimetres in diameter form the most-recently identified microplastic pollution threat - these often include microfibres, or strands of synthetic textiles shed by clothing run through washing machines. A typical, five-kilogram load of polyester fabrics is estimated to produce over six million microfibers in one wash. Deteriorating car tyres are also thought to be a top contributor to microplastic pollution, and are the subject of ongoing research. Microplastic pollution is now globally pervasive; it has been found in every ecosystem on Earth, including the Arctic, deep ocean trenches, and on remote slopes of the French Pyrenees. Microplastics have also been detected in the digestive tracts of animals including coral and tiny creatures like plankton. This could cause serious harm due to bio-amplification along the food chain - some 90% of seabirds are estimated to have ingested plastic - and due to pollutants or toxins that accumulate on their surfaces. Studies have also suggested that microplastics in marine animals can cause tissue inflammation, affect reproductive success, and alter gene expression (this does not apply equally to all species; for example, about 40% of the fish species studied have actually showed no evidence of having ingested plastics). Soluble plastic additives to shampoos, soaps, detergents, cleaning products, and fabric treatments also present threats as aquatic pollutants - and on a scale that while difficult to quantify is nonetheless likely significant. New technologies for the clean-up of plastic pollution have been developed, but are still far from perfect - or are not applicable on a broad scale. For example, technology solutions focused on removing free-floating plastic from the ocean surface have faced challenges including relatively high costs and unintended negative effects on sea life.

Plastic Pollution

KEY TRENDS

Anthropogenic Environmental Damage