Mega: What opportunities exist with a global marine plastic agreement?
Niko: An agreement must go beyond killing on the marine environment because plastics are pervasive throughout the entire economy. Like the Paris Agreement, a plastics agreement can catalyze a transformative shift across the plastic production value chain that engages industry and consumers using market-based instruments and creating opportunities for jobs. It could incentivize collecting, sorting, or recycling of plastics and create a level playing field for the industry, nationally and across global markets. In addition, flexibility to address national priorities through national action plans can allow countries to set targets and measures. All in all, an agreement could help to reap benefits across the Transforming our World: 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda).
Backstory: A Patchwork of Plastic Action
In 1972, scientists reported finding small pieces of plastic in the ocean and warned of potential chemical leaching from plastic into the ocean. In the same year, 15 countries ratified the London Convention, the first global marine pollution agreement, which did not address plastic waste specifically. Today 87 countries are parties to the agreement. International conventions and regional agreements that emerged in the 80s and 90s agreements built out more comprehensive protection of ocean ecosystems and focused predominantly on marine-based pollution and ecosystem threats. Plastic wastes began to enter the conversation but were not yet a priority. Over the past decade groundbreaking scientific studies on plastic waste—such The Pplastic waste inputs from land into the ocean published in Science Magazine in 2015 that first calculated the rate of plastic flowing into the ocean—have helped to catalyze more agenda-setting discussions at the UN on plastic pollution as an issue area. Such studies also have built momentum for alliances of industry, nonprofits, and foundations to find solutions to the marine plastic waste crisis. (See Timeline).
Meg: The US Senate passed Save our Seas 2.0 Act in January 2020 while the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 was introduced in the House. The United States seems focused on domestic policy. What is the global political climate to address this issue?
Niko: During the past decade, the political interest to tackle plastic pollution has heightened as the problem has literally stranded itself on beaches all around the globe and, consequently, surfaced in international fora. In 2012, the outcome document The Future We Want of the Rio+20 Conference recognized the need to adopt a life-cycle approach to manage plastics and committed, by 2025, to achieve significant reductions in marine debris. In 2015, the 2030 Agenda outlined a commitment for 2025 to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.” Furthermore, the UN Assembly has, in its four consecutive environment sessions, adopted resolutions on marine plastic litter and microplastics, including committing to the long-term elimination of all discharge of plastic litter into the ocean.