UN signals 'end' of throwaway plastic

Roger Harrabin BBC 6 Dec 17;

The end of the era of throwaway plastic has been signalled by UN environment ministers meeting in Kenya.

They signed off a document stating that the flow of plastic into the ocean must be stopped.

Scientists welcomed the statement, but were unhappy the agreement was only based in principle, with no firm targets or timetables.

Ministers say it's a milestone because it shows governments, industry and the public that a major change is needed.

Vidar Helgesen, Norway's Environment Minister, has been leading the UN debate on plastic pollution.

He told BBC News: "What we came here with was the need for action. The starting point was aiming for zero emission of marine litter. So it's effectively a breakthrough for zero emission of plastic into the ocean."

He admitted that this was really only the start of action against plastic litter.

Li Lin from WWF International told BBC News: "Today we have seen quite good progress on marine litter and micro-plastics.

Waste comparisons by country

"We would just like to see this agreement implemented by governments, business, NGOs and consumers as quickly as possible. Because this issue is urgent."

We know plastics are already damaging life in the sea, but we don't know how much more damage it can take before whole ecosystems start to be affected.

The seas after all are also beset with climate change, acidification, dead zones, and multiple types of pollution.

Delegates here hope governments will be prompted to move faster with their own national policies to clamp down on waste plastic, rather than just waiting for UN resolutions.

But stopping plastic litter will require new technology - and new attitudes from the public. Among the many pollution challenges facing mankind, this is arguably one of the hardest.

UN resolution calling for targets to tackle ocean plastic waste rejected by US, China and India
Exclusive: Final agreement 'stresses importance of long-term elimination' of litter from our seas
Tom Embury-Dennis The Independent Online 6 Dec 17;

A United Nations agreement that would have called for specific, internationally-agreed goals to tackle plastic waste in our oceans has been rejected by the US.

Several countries, including China and India, also refused to include in the resolution a call on nations to adopt any reduction targets, but US officials “were clearly leading the discussion on this”, a source at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi told The Independent.

Countries did agree that the world needs to stop plastics from entering the sea, but the final resolution published on Wednesday has no timetable and is not legally binding.

Governments will instead establish an international taskforce to advise on what UN environment chief Erik Solheim has dubbed “an ocean Armageddon”.

China is by far the biggest producer of plastic waste. In 2010 it is estimated to have mismanaged almost nine million tonnes of it. However the US fails to feature in the top 10, according to World Atlas.

A deal was eventually struck that keeps a demand for a reduction target out, in exchange for a pledge that “stresses the importance of long-term elimination” of plastics going into the oceans.

Instead of targets, the resolution “urges all actors to step up actions to by 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds” and “encourages” member states to “prioritise policies” that “avoid marine litter and micro plastics entering the marine environment”.

Politicians say the agreement is important because it will clear the way for much tougher policies and send a signal to governments and business.

Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s environment minister and a leader of the UN debate on plastic pollution, told the BBC it was a “breakthrough for zero emissions of plastic into the ocean”, but admitted it was only the start of the action that will be needed.

Mr Solheim, UN environment head and undersecretary-general, said: “We need to phase out what we don't need, make what we do need with better materials, and recycle all the plastics that we use.

"I'm very optimistic that in 20 years, we will see a much more circular economy."

More than eight million tonnes of plastic goes into the oceans every year. With an estimated 300 million tonnes of it now littering our seas, it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish by 2050.

It is thought our seas now contain about 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy.

This pollution is harming more than 600 species worldwide amid what many are now regarding as the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

Ocean plastic: clean it up, but avoid the mistakes of global climate policy
Malcolm David Hudson, Associate Professor in Environmental Sciences, University of Southampton
The Conversation Yahoo News 11 Dec 178;

In early December 2017 the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi announced a resolution on marine litter and microplastics. The move was widely welcomed as the emerging “plastic oceans” crisis has become starkly clear.

It is estimated that 8m tonnes of plastic waste finds its way in to the ocean each year, and it is notoriously difficult to remove. The impacts are increasingly apparent: great rafts of plastic are congregating in ocean gyres, blame games have broken out between neighbouring countries, and marine species face poisoning from the associated toxins.

There may even be direct risks for humans, especially the 400m or so poor people who depend critically on fish for their food. As yet fisheries are more threatened by over-exploitation and climate change, but we are now finding plastics in our marine ecosystems and even in food like mussles and oysters.

Timely – but not binding

Given the urgency of the problem, a more decisive global leadership is needed and so the UN’s announcement is certainly timely. Its resolution on marine litter and microplastics is the first genuine global attempt to tackle the problem. It aims to eliminate marine litter in the long term, urging counties to take action by 2025, to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds” and “encourages” them to “prioritise policies” that “avoid marine litter and micro plastics entering the marine environment”. Among other promising points, an international working group will be set up to seek legally binding options to tackle marine litter, and it is encouraging to see that almost 40 countries have signed up to the voluntary #CleanSeas campaign since its launch in February 2017.

The elephant in the room here is the lack of any binding targets. Under pressure from key players like the US, China and India, UNEP has backed off putting in targets or binding commitments, although it was reported that the US was at least engaged in the discussions. It is worth noting that China is the biggest emitter of plastic marine litter and along with the US and India has a very large plastic manufacturing sector.

Alarming parallels
There are alarming parallels with the past two decades of attempts to tackle climate change. Evidence that greenhouse gases emitted by human activities were causing more energy to be trapped in our atmosphere has been increasingly clear since the mid 1990s, but vested interests combined with the need for equitable treatment of developing countries means that progress has been painfully slow – so slow that it will now be much harder to stay within the 2°C limit that scientists view as potentially manageable for future generations. Even now, while the evidence is clear and the impacts are painfully apparent round the world, the US has backed out of the 2015 Paris agreement.

But we are are capable of better. In the 1970s and 80s we faced another major environmental threat. Pollutants used in refrigerants (chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs for short) were damaging the ozone layer, which acts as a protective screen from the worst of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Alarm bells were ringing as skin cancers increased, and scientists predicted a catastrophe within decades.

That time, despite the now-familiar lobbying and stalling by industry, who argued that the science was uncertain and that more evidence was needed, the world got together. The Montreal Protocol was agreed in 1987 and since then the harmful chemicals have been phased out or managed more effectively. We have seen the ozone layer recovering towards pre-1980s levels and, in a positive unintended consequence, the phasing out of chemicals that are also potent greenhouse gases.

We humans have a mixed track record. The recovering ozone layer shows that we can, if we have the will and the leadership, get to grips with even the most wicked of environmental problems and turn things round. But, as our attempts to deal with climate change have shown, progress can be slow and getting everyone working together remains fraught with difficulty.

We should not forget that plastics have revolutionised our lives – I am typing this on a plastic keyboard, for instance, while wearing a plastic fibre fleece, and looking through plastic lenses in my glasses. Any change will be tough and could have economic consequences.

But however important plastic seems to our lives, we depend even more on the health of the oceans for our well-being and for that of the planet. Right now attempts to get the world together to deal with plastic waste and ocean pollution are at a crossroads; at least it’s good news we have made it this far.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. .

Malcolm David Hudson receives funding from the Blue Marine Foundation for research into microplastics and marine biodiversity. He is a member of Greenpeace, RSPB and the UK Wildlife Trusts