Although the world’s attention is understandably focused on COVID-19, we must not lose sight of longer-term priorities such as reducing plastics pollution, which the pandemic has exacerbated. The imperative is clear: invest in policies and infrastructure to protect a resource that is vital to our economies and our very survival
Plastic is entering the world’s oceans and seas in ever- greater quantities, and the COVID-19 pandemic is compounding the problem. Masks, gloves, and other forms of personal protective equipment are ending up in waterways. And the World Wildlife Fund estimates that if just 1% of the billions of masks made with a thermoplastic polymer called polypropylene are tossed on the ground rather than deposited in proper disposal bins, as many as ten million per month will end up in the environment as pollution.
Such warnings should serve as a reminder that no matter how urgent the COVID-19 crisis may be, our response to it must include long-term commitments to the environment. Even without the pandemic, tackling the problem of plastics and ocean pollution would be a massive undertaking. In fact, it is difficult to overstate the challenge. About ten million tons of plastics are discharged into the oceans each year, and the Ocean Conservancy believes there are already some 150 million metric tons circulating in marine environments.
Pollution generated by larger plastic items, such as bottles, could be stopped by implementing proper waste management around the world. But small plastic waste, in the form of so-called microplastics, will be a harder problem to solve, not least because it is barely visible.
Some microplastics are added to products like toothpaste and sunscreen. Other are created when vehicle tires wear down on roads, when clothes rub together in washing machines, or when nylon fishing nets break down in the ocean. Many of the solutions for keeping these tiny plastic particles out of waterways are still in development.
Microplastics harm aquatic life and biodiversity in many ways, and are probably hurting humans, too. When animals eat plastic, it can block their digestive tracts and send incorrect feeding signals to their brains. Fish, in particular, often mistake plastic particles for food. And because these small particles accumulate in their digestive systems without killing them, they often end up inside humans when we eat seafood.
Plastic pollution is expected to keep increasing, particularly in lower-income countries with expanding economies. That means the need to improve waste management everywhere in the world, and to help poorer countries control plastic waste, is becoming increasingly urgent.
The European Union has made this a high priority, and several policies are in the works to address the problem. The European Commission’s new Circular Economy Action Plan, for example, proposes mandatory requirements for recycling and reducing the waste associated with key products such as single-use plastic packaging. And a revision to the EU Drinking Water Directive would ensure that drinking water is regularly monitored for the presence of microplastics.
Plastic pollution is expected to keep increasing, particularly in lower-income countries with expanding economies. That means the need to improve waste management everywhere in the world, and to help poorer countries control plastic waste, is becoming increasingly urgent
If all storm and sewage water in the world were collected, and if we averted all other discharges into bodies of water, we could stop most microplastics from reaching the oceans. The EU’s rule changes for urban wastewater and drinking water would represent major steps toward a more effective collection and treatment regime for microplastics. But it will take several billion euros in investment each year to reduce the volume of microplastics reaching waterways. And that is just within the EU.
Another problem is that the private sector often cannot afford (or is unwilling) to invest in the required solutions. As such, there is also an urgent need for stronger public-sector regulation of microplastics, which can be accompanied by stricter emissions standards as well as more affordable financing for investment in compliance.
As the EU’s lending arm, the European Investment Bank is working on many new ways to finance projects that would advance solutions to the plastics problem. To address ocean pollution directly, the bank has committed to financing better wastewater management systems around the world. Two years ago, we adopted a new lending framework for the water sector, so that we now funnel more support and long-term financing to water utilities, resource managers, and industrial wastewater users. As this is a global problem, we hope that all other development banks will follow suit.