Governing an Ocean of Plastics
The ocean provides livelihoods for millions of people around the world and absorbs up to a third of global carbon-dioxide emissions. But with the health of maritime ecosystems threatened by plastic pollution, a new international treaty is urgently needed.
BREMEN – Images of plastic pollution in the ocean and on beaches are now commonplace, and the problem is likely to get worse. Last week, the OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook revealed a dramatic increase in the plastic waste leaked into aquatic environments. That report came only a month after the World Wildlife Fund for Nature released a study that projects a doubling of microplastics in the ocean over the next few decades.
While there are promising innovations that extract plastic from the ocean or intercept it in rivers, these projects will barely make a dent in the amount of plastic pollution in the world’s waterways. Even under the most optimistic projections, these technologies will affect only 5-10% of all plastic in the ocean.
More than 1,000 organizations, including businesses and governments, have signed on to a plan for a new, circular economy for plastics. But this kind of voluntary action also is not enough.
The problem requires a new form of global governance to change the entire production and consumption cycle of fossil-based plastics. The fifth meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) offers a unique forum to turn the tide on marine plastics via legally binding mechanisms.
The international community has already shown its ability to act on serious environmental challenges. The landmark Montreal Protocol of 1987 on substances that deplete the ozone layer managed to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons in only a few years. An international treaty on plastic pollution will require a similar transformation in societies’ priorities, based on ocean literacy and a new vision for the blue economy.
An effective international agreement on ocean plastic pollution should account for all aspects of plastics production – from manufacturing to disposal, and it must involve governments, the private sector, and the public. Specifically, a new treaty should address six issues.
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First, plastic use must be reduced at all points along the supply chain. Food packaging, particularly take-out containers, is a major source of ocean pollution. Eliminating it will require policy support and funding for the development of novel biodegradable food containers and stronger efforts to encourage reusable packaging.
Second, a new treaty must encourage the growth of the blue economy. Governments should create programs to promote sustainable, ocean-friendly tourism, fishing, marine renewable energies, and other businesses. Policymakers also must invest in urban-waste and wastewater-management infrastructure that includes resource-recovery options.
Third, the impact of plastic pollution on the marine environment must be regularly assessed and improved. The forthcoming international coral reef symposium in Bremen offers a chance to examine how microplastics and nanoplastics affect these beautiful and valuable ecosystems. While research suggests that corals have some resilience to plastic pollution, they face myriad other threats, including ocean heat waves, changes in oxygen levels, and ultraviolet radiation.
More systematic and regular assessments will be needed to understand the long-term consequences for corals and other ocean life. Experience with climate-change governance suggests that a more agile structure than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is needed to improve response strategies. One option is regular ocean assessments that synthesize findings on key topics and engage with relevant parties.
This leads to the fourth issue that a new treaty on marine plastic pollution must address: an agreement on legal principles for sustainable ocean governance. Given that plastic pollution has multiple sources, establishing proper accountability is essential. Packaging producers, food retailers, delivery platforms, shipping companies, tourism firms, and others must be part of the discussion about such principles. Companies already disclose relevant data on emissions, in accordance with environmental, social, and governance reporting standards. Comparable figures on plastic waste could be included in these frameworks.
Fifth, improvements are needed in waste management and circular-economy systems, particularly in key countries like Indonesia and China. Policy options include extended producer responsibility, landfill taxes, deposit-refund, and pay-as-you-throw usage pricing. A treaty also should offer support for coastal communities in their efforts to manage plastic waste. New policies could pilot funding schemes for innovative local businesses and plastic recovery options, including incineration facilities with energy recovery.
Lastly, legal principles governing the ocean as part of humanity’s common heritage should be developed, going beyond the current scope of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. These principles would enable the ocean to be turned from a dumping ground into a source of global prosperity. This will require governments and corporations to work together to create mission-oriented policies and roadmaps for a plastic-free ocean.
Meanwhile, the private sector must spearhead the change in unsustainable patterns of plastic-waste production and promote new innovations that can replace plastic or reduce its use. Consumer awareness, based on learning tools such as “reflectories” and curriculum units on marine plastic pollution, will be needed to push these efforts forward.
An international treaty on marine plastic pollution based on ocean literacy, industry transformation, and agreed legal principles would recognize the multiple services provided by the ocean. It is a crucially important step toward a blue new deal that emphasizes equality, democracy, and justice.