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Plastic pollution a threat to the marine environment—are there bigger fish to fry?

By Sarah Robinson

turtle plasticAccording to the United Nations, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans every year (UN Environment Programme, 2017). Plastic pollution has substantial negative effects on environmental, animal, and human health (Derraik, 2002; Rochman et al., 2016). Recently, this issue has received significant attention in the media; with high-profile films like Blue Planet II and viral social media movements like the #Trashtag challenge and #CleanSeas, it is no surprise that plastic pollution is considered by many to be the most important threat to the marine environment.

This year, a global alliance of almost 30 companies was established to “eliminate plastic waste in our environment.” The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) will invest $1.5 billion over the next 5 years to reduce the amount of plastic waste produced and improve recycling by promoting infrastructure, innovation, education, and clean up. Sounds wonderful, but is this campaign against plastic pollution simply a “quick fix” for companies hoping to appear “environmentally-friendly”? Is this issue overemphasized at the cost of other more urgent threats, such as climate change and biodiversity loss?

Beach strewn with plastic debris (8080500982)In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report stressed the urgent need to limit global warming to 1.5oC, suggesting we have 12 years to make radical changes to our carbon emissions (IPCC, 2018). A new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warns of the unprecedented decline of nature and accelerating extinction rates (IPBES, 2019) The IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, said, “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide” (IPBES Media Release, 2019). The IPBES report addresses five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts, in descending order: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species. I fear that the war on plastic is a convenient distraction, masking the complexity of these environmental issues and effectively preventing large-scale changes that are required.

Plastic pollution in the oceans is an easy target—it is visually impactful, clean-ups produce tangible results, and simple lifestyle changes can be made to contribute to the cause. It is not my intention to question or depreciate the necessity of reducing plastic pollution, but to consider the danger of focusing on one environmental issue in isolation. I challenge you to consider the negative effects of a seemingly positive campaign. We will drive change in policy and industry—are we being manipulated by so-called “green” governments and corporations?


Derraik, J.G. 2002. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a reviewMar Pollut Bull, 44: 842-852.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2018. Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR15).

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. 2019. Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. 2019. Media Release: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’.

Rochman, C.M., Browne, M.A., Underwood, A.J., van Franeker, J.A., Thompson, R.C., Amaral-Zettler, L.A. 2016. The ecological impacts of marine debris: unraveling the demonstrated evidence from what is perceived. Ecology, 97: 302-312. https://doi:10.1890/14-2070.1

United Nations Environment Programme. 2017. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year. UN Environment Assembly