Plastic pollution in the oceans is a priority environmental issue. The recent increase in research on the topic, coupled with growing public awareness, has catalyzed policymakers around the world to identify and implement solutions that minimize the harm caused by plastic pollution. To aid and coordinate these efforts, we surveyed experts with scientific experience identified through their peer-reviewed publications. We asked experts about the most pressing research questions relating to how biota interact with plastic pollution that in turn can inform policy decisions and research agendas to best contribute to understanding and reducing the harm of plastic pollution to biota. We used a modified Horizon Scan method that first used a subgroup of experts to generate 46 research questions on aquatic biota and plastics, and then conducted an online survey of researchers globally to prioritize questions in terms of their importance to inform policy development. One hundred and fifteen experts from 29 countries ranked research questions in six themes. The questions were ranked by urgency, indicating which research should be addressed immediately, which can be addressed later, and which are of limited relevance to inform action on plastics as an environmental pollutant. We found that questions relating to the following four themes were the most commonly top-ranked research priorities: (i) sources, circulation and distribution of plastics, (ii) type of harm from plastics, (iii) detection of ingested plastics and the associated problems, and (iv) related economies and policy to ingested plastics. While there are many research questions on the topic of impacts of plastic pollution on biota that could be funded and investigated, our results focus collective priorities in terms of research that experts believe will inform effective policy and on-the-ground conservation.
The SeaCleaners’ View :
The problem of widespread plastic pollution and the growing awareness of the general public have strongly encouraged the political authorities to put in place decisions aimed at curbing this global environmental problem.
The authors of this study first turned to scientists in order to understand the extent of the problem and its impacts on both ecosystems and economic activity. This article presents an analysis of the responses of 150 scientific experts concerning the problem of plastic pollution and the priorities to be put forward in terms of research and development. Among the main themes addressed, the first four in order of priority are: first, to understand the sources and distribution of the different plastic pollution; second, to better understand the impacts of this pollution on ecosystems and on human health; third, to highlight the types and quantities of plastic that are ingested by animals and humans and to understand their impacts; fourth, to understand the economic impacts and the effects of different policies on the management of plastic pollution, in particular that which is ingested and ends up in the human food chain.
The least urgent research topics according to scientists are also interesting to analyse.
The one ranked 46th, and therefore last, concerns the link between aquatic or oceanic plastic pollution and climate change. This low priority ranking clearly shows that, despite numerous journalistic articles, this link is considered weak, apart from the use of fossil resources to produce plastics. However, pollution in itself does not have a significant complementary effect. The topic in 45th place, i.e. before last, concerns the spread of pathogenic species from plastics. This article was written before the Covid pandemic19. It would be interesting to see whether the scientists’ opinions have changed since then. However, this low priority ranking shows the low risk of this hypothesis of impact on the distribution of invasive species and pathogens.
The approach of this article, although scientifically exhaustive, only addresses part of the problem as it does not address the economic model of our society.
Indeed, whatever political decisions are taken, it is not possible to significantly reduce plastic pollution without profoundly modifying the economic system and in particular eliminating all single-use objects and all hyper-production which consumes a lot of resources and which, in the long run, will not allow for the management of either waste or pollution. One of the major problems of research and development, which is rarely addressed in studies, is of a political-economic nature: it is a question of understanding where to place added value in a new economic system and where to place the profits of the different actors without the model of hyper-production and consumer society. This study also shows the position of scientists with regard to plastic pollution. The questioning of the economic model does not appear in the themes, just the highlighting of the problem. Single-use plastics are widely used in laboratories for analysis. Is this justified, in the name of science, as well as in the name of safety? Apparently, this issue is not yet topical.
A Horizon Scan of research priorities to inform policies aimed at reducing the harm of plastic pollution to biota.
Provencher, J. F.; Liboiron, M.; Borrelle, S. B.; Bond, A. L.; Rochman, C.; Lavers, J. L.; Avery-Gomm, S.; Yamashita, R.; RYAN, P. G.; Lusher, A. L.; Hammer, S.; Bradshaw, H.; Khan, J.; Mallory, M. L.
The Science of the total environment, (2020) vol. 733, p. 139381.