A global treaty to end plastic pollution in the oceans?
From 28/2 till 4/3 leaders from many nations will unite at the fifth United Nationals Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2), to be held in Nairobi, Kenya. Held under the theme "Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals," UNEA 5.2 will focus on marine plastic pollution. Environmental organizations are urging that a global treaty to end ocean pollution is finally issued and implemented, to legally bind governments to protect the oceans from the ever growing influx of plastics. The hopes are high (and so are the stakes), and we may be close to such an agreement.
Ocean plastic pollution: a few numbers
300 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year, half of which are single-use plastics such as bags, bottles, wrappings, straws, cups, etc. 14 million tonnes of the total ends up in the oceans, entering via rivers and coastlines. According to studies, 81% of ocean plastics are emitted from Asia, which is also the world's most populous region and has the biggest plastic-laden rivers. These statistics are from Our World in Data. The Break Free From Plastic organization whose volunteers (14,734 waste pickers in 55 countries) analysed the origin of plastic waste, found that 63% of discarded object are from recognizable brands. So they identified the Top Pollutors: Coca Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo. Besides from plastic from the land, 20 to 30% of plastic in the oceans are discarded directly from fishing vessels, i.e. fishing gear, nets and ropes, known as ghost gear.
What are the dangers of marine plastic pollution?
Plastic is ubiquitous in the oceans and near coasts, and litters the remotest places on Earth, such as the depths of the Mariana Trough (11 km below sea level), the high seas, and the polar regions. Furthermore, plastic is very durable, it takes decades to degrade, hence, all plastic ever produced, is still around, somewhere, unless it is burned (also toxic). Ghost gear and bags suffocate and strangle fish, marine mammals, reptiles and birds. Animals eat and ingere plastic, because they confuse it with food (plastic bags look like jellyfish, small plastic pieces look like plankton). When the stomachs are filled with plastic, the animals starve to death. Microplastics are ingered by all marine life, and are therefore also found in the global food web and in human bodies, including in the womb. Babies born today, already contain microplastic from when they were embryos. The plastics are produced with chemicals that can be carcinogenic. Microsplastics also react chemically with seawater, producing more toxins. Therefore, marine litter is a threat for food security. The oceans and its organisms are the world's greatest climate regulator, therefore its conservation is of utter importance. Also other ocean services are at stake, such as tourism (nobody likes a dirty beach), traditional coastal communities and local fishing economies. It is important to realize that cleaning beaches and coastlines is more expensive than reducing plastic pollution.
What can be done?
Governments must collaborate, through (hopefully) the impending binding plastic deal, to regulate the fishing industry (the best solution is reduce fish consumption), stimulate sustainable blue economy and drastically reduce plastic production. Civilians are urged to make responsible choices and reduce consumption of drinks and foods wrapped in plastic, especially drinks from big companies. Note that bottles that can be refilled are the only real solution. Recycled bottles on the other hand are only useful if countries provide a functioning waste recycling system. Otherwise the recycled bottles become part of the ocean plastic soup anyway.
As Chris Armstrong puts it in his new book, A Blue New Deal: Why We Need a New Politics for the Ocean, global ocean laws are still predicated on 17th-century battles. The fishing regime of the high seas, he says, is still "largely governed by the idea that freedom at sea licenses unrestricted appropriation of resources". Unlike on land, where plastic pollution can somehow be monitored and is subject to national laws, in the oceans chaos rules and control is sparse to non-existent.
Let's hope our leaders take good decisions later this month in Nairobi, and while we are waiting and hoping, you can add your signature to demand a global treaty on plastic now, via Greenpeace's #Breakfreefromplastic campaign, to be presented to the United Nations.
And yes I know, plastic bags and bottles have been useful, but our grandparents and great-grandparents lived happily without them, so we can too!
More about plastic and oceans on Good Climate News:
- Pristine undamaged coral reef near Tahiti gives scientists hope
- ReNet: A Seychelles initiative to reuse discarded fishing gear, a.k.a. ghost gear
- Belgian producer of biodegradable fishing nets is awarded Food Planet Prize
- Latin American nations join to create the "Eastern Tropical Marine Corridor
- Single-use plastic banned in Europe since July 2021
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UNEA, From Pollution to Solution, https://www.unep.org/interactive/pollution-to-solution/?utm_term=61fbc3c23da237f290a4c274322caae6&utm_campaign=GreenLight&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=greenlight_email
Our world in data, Ocean Plastics, https://ourworldindata.org/ocean-plastics
Break Free From Plastic, Demanding Corporate accountability for plastic pollution. BFFP-2020-Brand-Audit-Report. https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/BFFP-2020-Brand-Audit-Report.pdf
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), Marine Plastic Pollution, Nov 2021, https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastic-pollution#:~:text=Over%20300%20million%20tons%20of,waters%20to%20deep%2Dsea%20sediments.
Plastic Treaty Now, Greenpeace, https://act.greenpeace.org/page/98946/petition/1?locale=en-GB
Article by Kathelijne Bonne, geologist & soil scientist. Editor of GondwanaTalks.
Useful hashtags to share ocean news: #oceanplastic #plasticpollution #plasticfree #plasticocean #plasticfreeoceans #oceanconservation #oceanpollution #singleuseplastic #savetheocean #beachcleanup #breakfreefromplastic #plasticwaste #oceancleanup #saveouroceans #saveourseas #cleanoceans UNEP@50
Keywords: break free from plastic, plastic pollution, global treaty on plastic, UNEA global treaty on plastic, refill bottles, ocean plastic pollution, marine plastic pollution, good news for the ocean, dangers of marine plastic pollution