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UNEP Warns Of Ocean Pollution Threats

February 17, 2011

The U.N.’s environmental watchdog warned on Thursday that tons of throw-away plastic and massive runoff from chemical fertilizer are choking the world’s oceans.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said in its annual Year Book report that the two sources of pollution threaten biodiversity, harm water quality, poison fish stocks and undermine coastal tourism.

The report, which was released ahead of a key meeting next week of environment ministers in Nairobi, highlights the need to protect marine environments already rendered fragile by over-exploitation and acidification caused by climate change.

It said only better waste management and a coordinated shift towards cleaner engines of economic growth can insure the future health of the planet’s aquatic commons.

“The phosphorus fertilizer and marine plastic stories bring into sharp focus the urgent need … to catalyze a global transition to a resource-efficient Green Economy,” UNEP executive director Achim Steiner told AFP.

Recent research suggests that both problems are more widespread than once thought.

In the U.S., the costs associated with phosphorous pollution are estimated at over $2 billion a year, with the global tally in the tens of billions.

About three dozen countries mine the phosphate rock found in growth-enhancing fertilizers.  Supplies are not about to run out, but are estimated to last about 300 to 400 years.

Use of chemical-based fertilizers increased around the world by 600 percent during the second half of the 20th century, but precisely how much flows into the environment is still unknown.

One study found that 22 million tons of phosphorus wind up in marine environments every year, while concentrations in freshwater and land have grown by at least 75 percent since 1960.

The report said that recycling waste water in the developing world’s mega-cities could help stem that flow.

The Year Book warns that marine plastics have also emerged as a growing threat.

Scientists have found that birds and aquatic animals can become entangled in plastic filaments, causing them to drown, or mistake them for food like squid or jellyfish.

However, a new concern is microplastics, which are tiny particles smaller than 0.19-inches in length discharged as pellets by industry or broken down by waves and sunlight.

New research suggests that microplastics could be moving through the food chain, becoming more toxic along the way.

Consumption of plastic products continues to rise worldwide.

In North America and western Europe, per capita annual use stands at about 220 pounds, which is an amount likely to increase by 40 percent within five years.  The developing world consumes at a fifth that level.

The report calls for stepped up recycling efforts.

“If plastic is treated as a valuable resource rather than just a waste product,” it would create stronger incentives for collection and reprocessing, it argues.

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