Australia Draws Attention of United Nations to Marine Litter and Micro-Plastics

24 January 2018 Geoff Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Landcare Research Programme


The third session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-3) convened in Nairobi in December 2017. It addressed the theme of “Towards a Pollution-Free Planet”.  The UNEA-3 focussed on a wide range of environmental issues including the prevention and control of soil pollution, the management of the lead used in batteries and paints, improving air and water quality, championing biodiversity and restoring water-related ecosystems. Significant attention was also directed towards the problem of plastic litter and micro-plastics in the oceans where, without significant action, there may be more plastic than fish, by weight, by 2050.


In a paper published in early 2017, FDI reported the harmful effects of marine micro-plastics, the small plastic fragments detached from larger, man-made plastic items, present in marine ecosystems. Those micro-plastics are consumed by marine fauna and work their way through the food chain culminating in species caught for human consumption. Scientific research from Japan, Europe and the United States indicates that the toxins and chemicals leached from accumulated plastics may have a detrimental effect on human health. Further research shows that unless significant efforts are undertaken to address the amount of marine micro-plastics, the consequent harmful effects on sensitive marine ecosystems, such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, will be severe and wide-ranging.

Motivated by a reliance on seafood for both domestic and export consumption and concern for unique aquatic ecosystems, Australia and Norway took a position of leadership on this issue at UNEA-3. With the support of other UN members, they submitted a draft resolution articulating the following key requirements:

  • Undertake a global assessment of levels of marine litter and micro-plastics in the environment.
  • Recognise the benefits of reducing plastic use while improving design and quality standards in the face of increased production and consumption of plastic.
  • Determine national and regional reduction targets (of marine litter) and adopt priorities to affect the reductions.
  • Strengthen the United Nations Environment Programme.
  • Identify and recommend options to strengthen international governance for combatting marine litter.
  • Prioritise, where feasible, clean-up in the marine environment.

The UNEA-3 submission and the discussions that followed achieved significant success. The Committee of the Whole (a committee composed of all member countries) resolved to adopt all the actions proposed to combat marine pollution and micro-plastics. Additionally, it encouraged greater co-operation between governments, the private sector and civil society. It highlighted the role to be played by the Global Partnership on Marine Litter, a long-standing UN-sponsored programme with a goal of protecting human health and the global environment by reducing marine litter. Importantly, the UNEA also committed to sponsorship of a research body tasked with identifying ways that will enable the participation of developing countries in combatting marine plastic litter and micro-plastics. The expert group will be required to report back to the UNEA executive prior to UNEA-4, scheduled to be held in March 2019.

The outcomes achieved at UNEA-3 are important for a range of reasons. First, they strengthen Australia’s position as a leader in the addressing and managing marine pollution. Second, the global community recognises the significance of the problems posed by micro-plastics to human health and marine ecosystems. Third, and no less important, is the worldwide commitment, overseen by the UN, to the setting and achieving of targets for reducing pollution by marine plastics.

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