UN resolves to end ocean plastic waste

At the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, more than 200 nations passed a resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in our seas. Although it's not a legally binding treaty, it could pave the way to one.

More than 200 countries have promised to turn the tide on throwaway plastic packaging that is clogging our oceans and threatening marine ecosystems. 

Nature and Environment | 30.11.2017

At the United Nations Environment Assembly happening this week in Nairobi, a resolution has been passed aimed to end marine plastic pollution.

Hopes for a binding treaty

In advance of the assembly, a UN marine ecosystems chief called marine plastic pollution a "planetary crisis," and environmental groups had hoped for a "Paris-style" global treaty aimed at tackling it. The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, lays the fundamental groundwork for the world to take action on climate change.

Scientists calling for a binding international agreement said the impact of ocean plastics on biodiversity, ecosystem services, food security and human health make it "a global threat."

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"Plastic is not constrained by national boundaries, because it migrates via water and air currents and settles in benthic sediments," they said in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"More than 50 percent of the ocean's area sits beyond national jurisdiction, including the infamous 'garbage patches' in oceanic gyres where plastic accumulates."

The resolution signed this week is nonbinding. But Norwegian Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen said he hoped it would lead to a more enforceable agreement.

"We now have an agreement to explore a legally binding instrument and other measures and that will be done at the international level over the next 18 months," he told Reuters.

Building on Sustainable Development Goals

This week's resolution reaffirms the commitment under the UN Sustainable Development Goals to "prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution."

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It encourages member states to take action to prevent marine litter and microplastics, do more to recycle, and quantify and clean up existing ocean pollution.

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The resolution is part of a declaration the UNEP said would promote fiscal incentives to reduce waste, strengthen laws against pollution, and promote "sustainable lifestyles based on a circular economy."

Taking steps to ditch plastic

During the UNEP Assembly, Chile, Oman, Sri Lanka and South Africa joined the Clean Seas campaign. Sri Lanka announced it would ban single-use plastic products from the start of 2018, and step up efforts to recycle waste.

"We have banned plastic bags and are now working to reduce the number of plastic bottles in the country," said Sri Lankan Environment Minister Anura Dissanayake. "We want to be a green and blue beacon of hope in Asia, and do everything we can to keep the seas clean."

Several other countries have already banned disposable plastic bags.

The Clean Seas campaign also urges companies and individuals to take a pledge against plastic waste, for example promising to reuse plastic bags, choose products with less packaging and bring our own containers for takeout food.

In addition, the "stop sucking" campaign to reduce the use of plastic drinking straws.

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A sad find

Researchers Melanie Bergmann and Mine Banu Tekman conducted one of the few time-series studies tracking litter in the deep sea. And the results are worrying.

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Litter down in the deep

Researchers used a towed camera system to observe the ocean floor at a depth of 2,500 meters. Even there, they found a significant concentration of litter.

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The fate of plastic

The European Union only recycles around 25 percent of its plastic trash - even though it is considered a pioneer in environmental issues. Our daily plastic waste often ends up at the bottom of the sea.

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Unsustainable fishing

Fisheries also play a major role when it comes to marine pollution. Plastic nets are commonly found among ocean litter - and they pose serious risks to marine animals.

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Boomerang effect

Once in the ocean, small pieces of plastic are eaten by plankton. Via these small organisms, microplastics make their way into the whole food chain. That means we end up eating the plastic we threw away.

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A long life

Plastic bags take about 20 years to disintegrate. Plastic bottles need up to 450 years. In the deep sea, the process can be even slower due to a lack of sunlight and oxygen.

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Broken glass on the "pristine" seafloor

Things are getting worse. The researchers say there has been a clear increase in the amount of litter since 2011.

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Never too late to change

It would still be possible to change our lifestyles. Reducing the amount of waste we produce and raising awareness on the importance of recycling could be the next step to start cleaning up our seas.

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