Continuing the Dialogue on Combatting Marine Plastic Pollution

10 April 2019 Geoff Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Regional Development Research Programme

Background

The Kenyan capital, Nairobi, was the location for a fourth round of meetings convened by the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4). Held in early March 2019 and with delegates drawn from across the globe, the UNEA-4 programme provided a framework for international discussions about moving toward a sustainable approach to addressing environmental challenges. A continuing focus in UNEA-4 and earlier UNEAs, has been pollution of the marine environment; at UNEA-3 delegates agreed that a special forum should be convened to determine ways to combat marine plastic pollution. That group, the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics (AHOEEG), conducted several meetings to identify future barriers to combatting the increasingly urgent environmental problem of marine litter and micro-plastics. It also sought global agreement on methods of overcoming those barriers.

Comment

Business conducted at AHOEEG meetings in Nairobi, in May 2018, and in Geneva last December, focussed on the problem of an increasing risk to the global marine environment, posed by marine plastic litter and micro-plastics. Delegates discussed and exchanged views on how to define the problem of the amount of plastic litter in the world’s oceans. A number of countries also briefed the meetings on their nationally-focussed projects to address marine plastic pollution and the effectiveness of their efforts. Correspondingly, intergovernmental organisations and accredited stakeholder groups reported on their work and their achievements in reducing levels of marine pollution.

The delegates also sought to understand whether pollution levels are increasing or reducing, as well as attempting to determine the rate at which changes are occurring. Importantly, discussions also concentrated on an exchange of views to help delegates identify and understand ways of responding to the problem. The single most important agreement achieved, was that action is needed now.

At the second AHOEEG, discussion concentrated on seeking member-country agreement on developing and implementing a new global architecture aimed at addressing the full lifecycle of marine plastics and micro-plastic pollution. Embedded in those agreements would be emphasis on two distinct themes: Information and Monitoring, and Governance. The Information and Monitoring path recognises a continuing need for measuring, monitoring and reporting on global progress on preventing plastic from entering the marine environment and the efforts countries are making to achieve a substantial reduction in marine plastic pollution.

In terms of the Governance path, the delegates determined that the most important factor in eliminating plastics from the marine environment relates to the lifecycle of those plastics. That includes the whole process, from their production from the raw material, to the point of entering the ocean. Long-term implementation strategies include the use of recyclable and reusable materials, as well as improvements in how (plastic) waste is managed at the local government level.

The work undertaken by the AHOEEG was recognised as significant. At UNEA-4 it was resolved that the AHOEEG’s mandate, issued at UNEA-3 would be extended to UNEA-5, which is scheduled for February 2021. The AHOEEG is to continue work on pursuing the outcomes from previous meetings aligned with the broad themes – Information and Monitoring, and Governance. Priority attention is also to be given to establishing strong partnerships between governments, non-government and other relevant organisations and agencies. This is to include building and nurturing relationships with private enterprises and manufacturers engaged in developing plastic materials. A particular focus would be on developing a “single-use” variety that will biodegrade quickly. The relationships will emphasise and encourage progress towards a “three R’s” approach – recycle, re-use or reduce the use of plastic.

UNEA-4 drew high-level representation and a global audience. Many of the countries and stakeholder groups represented made statements detailing their support for the UNEA, further committing to addressing marine plastic and micro-plastic pollution. Australia’s contribution emphasised work that was being undertaken at the national level to reduce the use of marine plastics. This includes an updated National Waste Policy and setting an ambitious target of 100 per cent use of recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging by 2025.

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