Scientists are calling for a binding treaty to phase out global production of virgin plastic by 2040.
In a paper published by the journal Science yesterday, scientists representing leading academic institutions in Europe, North America, Australasia, and Africa argue that while experts had previously tended to view the plastics problem from a predominantly "ocean-focused and waste-centred perspective", the environmental impacts of the plastic industry were now recognised to be more widespread.
"Plastics are increasingly found in all environmental media, including terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere, as well as human matrices, including lungs and placenta," the report states.
Since 1950, approximately eight billion tonnes of plastic has been produced, the report reveals. Levels of plastic use are continuing to rise globally with the material ubiquitous in multiple sectors. Around 47 per cent of all plastic produced is used in packaging, but a further 14 per cent is used in textiles and six per cent in transport.
The industry is also a major source of emissions and has been designated as a long term growth market by many of the world's oil majors, as they look to diversify their revenue streams in response to transport and energy decarbonisation policies.
The paper argues that in order to curtail the environmental impact of plastics global co-ordination and long term planning is urgently required.
Speaking to the Guardian, one of the report's authors, Nils Simon, called for a binding global treaty to phase out the production of newly made or virgin plastic by 2040 as well as creating a circular economy for plastic which incentivises reuse and refillable packaging.
"Plastic pollution poses a considerable, even though not yet fully understood, threat to the environment, species, and habitats, as well as to cultural heritage," he added. "Its social impacts include harm to human health, in particular among vulnerable communities, and it comes with substantial economic costs affecting especially regions depending on tourism.
"Addressing these challenges requires a transformative approach that facilitates measures to reduce production of virgin plastic materials and includes equitable steps toward a safe and circular economy for plastics."
Science senior editor Jesse Smith said: "The time for preventing plastic pollution is long past - the time for changing the future of plastics in our world, however, is now."