Wetlands and plastic pollution

23 May 2023

At the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March 2022 the member states agreed a historic Resolution titled “End plastic pollution: towards an international legally binding instrument”.

In the coming days the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) will be meeting to finalize an agreement before the deadline of 2024. The Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands applauds this work and will be supporting World Environment Day – 5 June – which will focus on “solutions to plastic pollution”.

According to the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic production and pollution affect and exacerbate the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution. This impact is explained below.

First of all, plastic pollution affects human health and the open burning of plastics contributes to air pollution. Plastic production affects global warming, as by 2050 greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production will account for 15 per cent of allowed emissions, under the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (34.7°F).

Over 800 species affected

Wetlands are grievously affected by plastic pollution with more than 800 marine and coastal species affected by this pollution through ingestion, entanglement and other dangers. Rivers and other wetlands are not only places which plastic waste flows through, they are also places where long-term deposits settle.

Some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow annually into oceans and this may triple by 2040. Many migratory species are threatened by habitat degradation and loss, with some particularly vulnerable to plastic pollution in rivers and other wetlands because of their ecology and behavioural traits. Microplastics are also being detected in ecological systems around the globe. A study in 2019 found large deposits of microplastics in Lake Geneva and the Mediterranean.

Plastic debris is building up in freshwater and marine ecosystems, killing birds and turtles. Increasing amounts of plastic debris are being dispersed over long distances. Given well-documented impacts on biodiversity and human health, addressing plastic pollution is critically important to the world’s ecological balance.

World Environment Day focuses on plastic

At least 5.25 trillion plastic particles, weighing over 260,000 tonnes, are afloat in the world’s oceans. Debris can persist for centuries. Plastic particles disrupt food chains, damage animals and release persistent organic pollutants. Single-use plastics are a major contributor to plastic waste and the use of single-use plastics is to be addressed in the new plastics treaty.

Unfortunately, wetlands are often equated with waste grounds and used for litter and waste – as evidenced by the heart-breaking photos of areas despoiled by plastic. Wetlands are being lost at alarming rate, with 87% lost since 1700 and 35% since 1970. This loss has led to 4, 875 wetland-dependant species being identified as threatened with extinction. This is why immediate action is needed to stop this loss.