An accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards circular approaches will help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale.
"From pollution to solution: A global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution" shows there is a growing threat in all eco-systems from source to sea. It also shows that while "we have the know-how, we need the political will and urgent action by government to tackle the mounting crisis".
The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for global cooperation.
Plastic pollution leakage into aquatic eco-systems has grown sharply in recent years and is projected to more than double by 2030, with dire consequences for human health, the global economy, bio-diversity and the climate.
The assessment, released 10 days ahead of the COP26, emphasizes that plastics are a climate problem as well: Using a life cycle analysis, 2015 greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e), and are projected to increase to approximately 6.5 GtCO2e by 2050, or 15 per cent of the global carbon budget.
The authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling the way out of the plastic pollution crisis. They warn against damaging alternatives to single-use and other plastic products, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a chemical threat similar to conventional plastics.
The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions.
"This assessment provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans from source to sea," said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.
"A major concern is the fate of breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, many of which are known to be toxic, and hazardous to both human and wildlife health, and ecosystems. The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging.
"It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean."
The report highlights that plastic accounts for 85 per cent of marine litter and warns that by 2040, volumes of plastic pollution flowing into marine areas will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tonnes of plastic waste into the ocean per year.
This means about 50 kg of plastic per meter of coastline worldwide.