United Nations Charts Course in Global Challenge of Marine Litter and Micro-plastics

20 June 2018 Geoff Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Landcare Research Programme

Background

The problem of marine litter was recognised by the UN General Assembly in an Oceans and the Law of the Sea Resolution, which called for national, regional and global actions to address the problem of marine litter. At the third session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-3) in Nairobi in December 2017, it was agreed to convene a meeting of marine experts, scientists, government officers and other interested parties, to tackle the challenge of marine plastic litter and micro-plastics. The group is commonly referred to as the Ad Hoc Open-ended Expert Group (OEEG) on Marine Litter and Micro-plastics; participants will meet up to three times, with the aim of reporting to UNEA-4, scheduled for March 2019.

Comment

The first meeting  of the OEEG was held at the UN’s Environment Office in Nairobi, Kenya, in late May 2018. Approximately 270 delegates from across the globe represented governments, non-governmental organisations (NGO), academia and interested groups. At that meeting, agenda items were designed to stimulate and encourage broad and robust debate among the various working group participants. Specifically, participants were asked to consider:

  • The existing and future barriers to combatting marine litter and micro-plastics and seek to reach agreement on prioritising those identified as the most significant barriers;
  • The work of existing mechanisms and how they are addressing the challenge;
  • The feasibility and effectiveness of response options in the short-, medium-, and long-terms; and
  • The structure, discussion topics and a broad agenda for further OEEG meetings.

The member states represented in Nairobi also reported on their national strategies to combat marine plastic and micro-plastic waste. Thirty-two countries explained the efforts they are making by tabling formal position papers, which contain clear targets, measures of success and key performance indicators for reducing marine waste. In addition, 22 intergovernmental organisations and accredited stakeholder groups, submitted papers highlighting work being undertaken by their individual agencies or in collaboration among multiple groups. A joint submission by delegates from the Women’s Major Group and the NGO Major Group included contributions and endorsements from a wide group of international organisations, all of whom are committed to addressing the urgent question of marine plastic pollution. Though a participant at UNEA-3 and a keen proponent of the OEEG, Australia was not represented in Nairobi and, to date, has not submitted a position paper.

Consistent with the outcomes of the first meeting, themes central to combatting marine litter pollution, which will form the basis of future OEEG meeting agendas, relate to:

  • Gaps in the effective implementation and enforcement of existing legislation, including policies governing national responsibilities and liabilities;
  • The lack of in-depth knowledge of the impacts of marine litter on the marine environment and its effects on human health, including the socio-economic dimension;
  • The effective management of solid waste generated on land, including reducing the quantity generated and effective recycling;
  • Addressing the lack of capacity and access to technological interventions in poorer countries, as well as a lack of appropriate funding to support innovation;
  • Reducing the amount and the impacts of plastics and micro-plastics released in the marine and coastal environments, by providing incentives and enabling the conditions necessary to produce alternative, environmentally-friendly, products; and
  • A commitment to enabling communications campaigns to promote awareness and education, with a central message that litter from marine plastics and micro-plastics is socially unacceptable.

The specific dangers and degree of threat posed by marine plastic pollution are, at present, not adequately researched. Scientists are especially concerned about microplastics, because it is well documented that plastic litter causes physical harm to marine mammals, fish and invertebrates. Instances of death by entanglement, asphyxiation or blockage of organs, are common. Ample scientific and anecdotal evidence also exists recording the threat to endangered marine fauna, such as green turtles and aquatic mammals, but the overall impact of microplastics on marine and terrestrial life is unclear.

These particles are readily transported throughout our seas and oceans and there is considerable evidence that organisms ingest them. The polymers that make up plastics are, however, of minimal toxicity to marine life. Nevertheless, while the body of research is far from complete, marine plastics may cause poisoning, tissue damage, inhibited nutrient uptake and reproductive disfunction. It is also possible that microplastics, once they have entered the food chain, may produce human health concerns.

The second OEEG is tentatively planned for Geneva in November 2018. Persistent damage to the marine environment has given strong emphasis to the UN’s intent and its broad directive to the OEEG: to stimulate action towards addressing the enormous global challenge of waste from marine plastic and micro-plastics. Delegates to the forthcoming sessions will need to observe the proceedings, facilitate efforts to reach consensus on recommendations and will be duty-bound to work toward achieving an increased commitment from the global community in addressing the issues of marine litter and micro-plastics.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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