Marine litter and plastic pollution have long been in the global spotlight. More than 120 countries have some sort of legislation in place to regulate or ban the use of single-use plastics. In Africa, 34 of 54 nations have instituted bans on single-use plastics, while the European Union has also introduced a single-use plastics ban as well as an export ban on unsorted plastic waste.
However, the flow of plastic into the ocean continues, and is projected to nearly triple by 2040. In response to this global challenge, the Governments of Ecuador, Germany, Ghana and Vietnam are jointly organizing a Ministerial Conference to build momentum and political will to advance a coherent global strategy to end marine litter and plastic pollution with an aim to ensuring a future with clean seas.
The Ministerial Conference set for September 2021 will provide a platform for informal consultations in the lead up to the second part of 5th UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), building on mandates (UNEA 3/7 and 4/6) from the 3rd and 4th session of UNEA related to tackling marine litter and microplastics. According to the four organisers, a global agreement is needed to build consensus on the threat of marine litter, i.a. set goals, address the whole life-cycle of plastics, achieve sustainable levels of production and consumption of plastics, support science-based approaches to measuring and monitoring progress, unlock funding and provide the framework and impetus for action and change at local, national, regional and international levels.
Marine litter, a global and omnipresent problem, wreaks havoc not only in marine ecosystems but also on the planet, wildlife and human health. More specifically, over the past 65 years, 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced, yet only nine percent of plastic waste has been recycled and twelve percent was incinerated, posing additional threats to air quality.
Up to twelve million tonnes of plastic waste end up in our oceans every year, where marine wildlife ingest or are entangled by plastic debris, causing injury and deaths. Plastic pollution also has negative impacts on food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change.
Further, in the recent UNEP Making Peace with Nature Report, pollution has been identified as one of three planetary crises, along with climate change and biodiversity loss, that threaten to disrupt our ability to achieve the sustainable development goals and to realize a vision of a humanity living in harmony with nature.
Following the decision to host the Conference, taken during the first session of the 5th UN Environment Assembly, the four co-conveners – facilitated by UNEP – held a panel discussion on 31 March to kick-start the process towards September's Ministerial Conference.
Ghana is a global leader in the fight against marine litter and plastics pollution, having become the first African Nation in 2019 to join the ambitious partnership to end plastic pollution. The Partnership created Ghana's National Plastics Action Partnership (NPAP) to support the development of a Circular Economy framework as the primary vehicle for reducing plastic waste and plastics pollution.
According to Dr. Kwaku Afriyie, Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, "We need innovation, cooperation, and financing in waste management and the monitoring of marine litter, especially in developing countries that lack infrastructure and where the process is harder — and more difficult to pay for."
Germany has been at the forefront of ensuring marine litter is top of mind in global fora such as at the G7 in 2015 and G20 in 2017 for the first time, developing actions plans to combat plastic marine pollution. "There is no single silver bullet to end marine litter and plastic pollution, but there surely is a toolbox to tailor solutions from. While upstream have to have priority for long-term success and downstream solutions must be deployed in addition. We have the science, we know the pathways, and the technology exists to fast track innovative that can serve the needs of people while protecting our degraded planet," said Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of Germany.
Vietnam has adopted a development strategy to promote maritime economy in parallel with protecting maritime environment and ecosystems, specifying "Preventing, controlling and significantly mitigating marine environmental pollution; being a regional pioneer in reducing ocean plastic waste" amongst the country’s objectives for 2030. "The time is now for countries to come together to develop a cohesive global framework -with clear milestones, stakeholder roles and responsibilities and progress indicators - to tackle transboundary marine litter and plastic pollution issues. South-East Asia is in a unique position with a significant role to play here, and a new global agreement will provide the essential boost to our regional and national actions against the global plastic crisis," said Ta Dinh Thi, Director General, Viet Nam Administration of Seas and Islands (VASI).
In November 2020, Ecuador enacted a Law for the Rationalisation, Reuse and Recycling of Plastics and the Prohibition of Single-use Plastics in Commerce, as a clear sign of its commitment to tackling this problem. "One major hurdle that scientists and policymakers face today is a lack of knowledge on the biological impacts of microplastics on both marine and human organisms. Momentum and visibility towards a global agreement, particularly in this Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainability, will be a good impetus to generate evidence around the impact of microplastics being found in our food chain and marine life. Stopping marine debris and plastic pollution will not only safeguard ocean health, but also our own health," said Marcelo Mata Guerrero, Minister of Environment and Water.
UNEP will support Member States to convene the Ministerial Conference and to provide the best science to inform policy ahead of the reconvening of UNEA 5 in early 2022.
"We simply must take urgent and transformational action now to put the brakes on plastic pollution because we cannot afford to reach the point of no return," said Inger Andersen. Executive Director of UNEP. "UNEP stands ready to support member states' discussions towards stronger global action on single-use plastics, while urging Member States and other stakeholders to start the work of eliminating single-use plastics where possible – to start reducing, reusing and recycling now, not later." The upcoming Ministerial Conference builds the ongoing momentum from the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics that completed its mandate at its fourth meeting in November 2020. The expert group called for Member States and Stakeholders to recognize the magnitude and urgency of marine litter and to collaborate to turn the tide on plastic.