A global plan to end plastic pollution in our seas is near

Posted on February 4, 2022 by DrRossH in Plastic Limiting Regulations, Plastic Waste News

Down to Earth, The Guardian, Feb 4 2022 edition

By Lucy Siegle Ink it in your diary, set a reminder, whatever you need to do … because later this month in Nairobi the world might just get its act together on one of the biggest menaces plaguing the ocean, and deliver a global treaty on plastic pollution. Some will no doubt think we should’ve had one of those already. But at the conclusion of the fifth United National Environmental Assembly (UNEA) – held from 28 February to 2 March – this long overdue measure is widely anticipated.

The scourge of plastic – 79% of plastic created since the mid 1900s is still with us, held in landfill for posterity or sinks in natural environments, predominantly in the oceans – caused international outrage in 2017, not least because of documentaries such as Blue Planet II. But despite millions mobilising on beach cleans and the like, the problem has worsened. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, marine plastic emissions are due to triple by 2040 as plastic production soars.

When we talk about the curse of plastic pollution we are most obviously talking about ocean degradation. Arguably if there was an abundance of great marine and ocean treaties to safeguard ocean health, then a plastic treaty would have been easier to come by. But there aren’t. 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”.

A global plastic treaty needs to reinforce freedom of the ocean and the living organisms in it from plastic pollution. This freedom must supersede the freedom of multinational soft drinks companies to sell their product in billions of plastic bottles. It must supplant the freedom of fast fashion brands to flog quasi-disposable garments made from petroleum fibres that shed microfibres and produce emissions in production.

So is that likely? The signs look good. If you think of UNEA as a showcase, it makes sense that the global plastic agreement will be the centrepiece. Not only is the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Environment Progamme (UNEP), but the theme of the session is Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the UN in 2015. SDG 14 refers specifically to the ocean and marks the first time governments have come together to commit to clear targets for restoring ocean health. Eight to 11m tonnes of plastic now enters the ocean each year, which is clearly incompatible with this goal. Two-thirds of UN member states have already committed to a pre-treaty.

But would it be effective? That is the million dollar question. There has certainly been an epiphany around ocean science and the need to understand and protect the ocean as part of the climate regime. There is a sense that we are finally understanding that a so-called Anthropocene Ocean – dedicated to serving human needs – will fail to serve anybody.

Meanwhile, many UN member states have been spooked by the volume of plastic they are dealing with and the prediction of increased production (production of plastic from oil and gas is projected to double within 20 years). In pre-treaty statements there seems a clear aim to “reduce virgin plastic production and use”. But equally there are plenty of warning signs that the narrative remains dominated by “business as usual”, which in this context means recycling increasing volumes of plastic as part of the circular economy. I don’t wish to mix materials in this metaphor, but that is kicking the can down the road. Less than 10% of plastic produced in our history has been recycled successfully so far, and a number of investigations have revealed that new recycling technologies are struggling to remedy the problem.

It’s time to push for an ambitious, real solution. That is the only way we will be the generation to end plastic pollution (and all the other climate ills besides). For more information,
click here, and if you want to get involved, join @UNEP to #BeatPlasticPollution for #CleanSea.