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Ocean Plastic Pollution: The need for a globally binding commitment

By August 6, 2020June 6th, 2023One Comment

Although the upcoming EU Plastic Tax in January 2021 and the UK Plastic Tax coming in April 2022 are steps in the right direction, globally binding policies alongside system wide interventions will be needed to tackle ocean plastic pollution effectively.

In just two decades from now, it is estimated there will be 29 million metric tons of plastic leakage into our oceans annually. Governments around the world need to be taking a much more active role in helping curb ocean plastic pollution. As of today, there are no international binding targets or treaties to address the problem. The ‘binding’ nature of these treaties implies that government commitments to carry out this obligation cannot be broken. Current policies in place such as the 2011 Honolulu Strategy only provide recommendations but cannot enforce governments to act. Policies which are binding, such as the 1973 International Convention for the Prevented of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) only focus on plastic pollution from maritime sources. This is problematic because according to environmental consultancy Eunomia, more than 80% of plastic waste enters the ocean from land. 

A landmark report by Duke University which developed a public inventory of all plastic-related policies and their effectiveness illustrates how far we have come, but also the measures we still need to take.. The study demonstrated that governments around the world have tended to use regulatory policy tools to carry out policy strategies. Regulatory tools in policymaking are used to control and maintain standards (in this case, environmental standards), through legislation, taxes and directives. For example, regulatory policies can be prohibitive and ban certain types of plastic or can implement a plan of action based on applying environmental targets and commitments. The data also indicates that governments have focused on regulatory policies to address maritime pollution. For example merchant shipping regulations passed by the Government of Malta in 2004 prohibits plastics being disposed from ships into the sea outside special areas. 

However, policies alone will not suffice. According to Duke University, although policies such as those aimed to reduce plastic bags led to significant net reductions of between 40-60%, these policies often had unintended consequences such as an increase in alternative types of non-reusable bags. Policies which appeared more effective tended to be paired with public awareness and educational campaigns, although this strategy was less common. Furthermore, a recent study by Systemic and The Pew Charitable Trusts illustrate that taking into consideration current regulatory policies and future action plans by the EU (e.g. European single-use plastics directive), plastic waste will only drop by 15% by 2040, compared to a business as usual scenario. Alongside a system-wide approach, executing global scale policies and standards to reduce the projected growth of plastic production rather than implementing specific regulatory policies which only account for certain types of plastic, such as straws or stirrers are needed. 

With COVID-19 and Brexit looming, divisive politics is the last thing the UK needs among the growing number of environmental problems. Yet a global treaty which enforces binding commitments for governments will be needed to reduce ocean plastic pollution. Although the exact nature of the policy is open for discussion, at minimum,  we need to establish system-wide policies to cover numerous types of plastic and plastic waste, as well as address the current and rapid production of virgin plastic and make recycled plastic the go to choice.