Nations have agreed that the world needs to completely stop plastic waste from entering the oceans. The third meeting of the UN Environment Assembly takes place 4th-7th December in Nairobi, Kenya with the overarching theme of pollution.
The UN resolution, which is set to be sealed at the Assembly, has no timetable and is not legally binding. But ministers at the believe it will set the course for much tougher policies and send a clear signal to business.
A stronger motion was rejected after the US would not agree to any specific, internationally agreed goals. Under the proposal, governments would establish an international taskforce to advise on combating what the UN’s oceans chief has described as a planetary crisis.
Environmentalists say ministers are starting to take plastic waste more seriously, but need to move much more quickly. Li Lin from the green group WWF said: “At last we are seeing some action on this issue, but we still don’t have the urgency we need. The problem needs solving right now.”
One contentious issue is the wish of delegates to include businesses on the global taskforce. Ministers say the problem will not be solved without business, but green groups point out that some firms in the plastics industry have been lobbying against restrictions for decades.
This links directly to Green Waste Enterprises Four Point Plan to fight this massive problem.
1. Educate people of all ages of the importance of recycling
2. Legislate to improve recycling laws in the USA and UK.
3. Take the plastic industry to task
4. Find a replacement for plastic that is biodegradable.
Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s environment minister, a leading voice in the talks, told BBC News: “Business is listening to markets and seeing how marine litter is a growing popular concern. “It’s possibly the fastest-growing environmental problem and it’s therefore a fast-growing problem for business. “We need to bring on board those companies that want to change things, then look at taxes and regulations to make more companies act sustainably. “We also need to mobilise businesses like aquaculture that suffer from marine pollution.”
Life in the seas risks irreparable damage from a rising tide of plastic waste, the UN oceans chief has warned. Lisa Svensson said governments, firms and individual people must act far more quickly to halt plastic pollution. “This is a planetary crisis,” she said. “In a few short decades since we discovered the convenience of plastics, we are ruining the ecosystem of the ocean.”
She had spoken to BBC News ahead of the UN environment summit in Nairobi. Delegates at the meeting want tougher action against plastic litter.
Ms Svensson had just been saddened by a Kenyan turtle hospital which treats animals that have ingested waste plastic. She saw a juvenile turtle named Kai, brought in in an emaciated state by fishermen a month ago because she was floating on the sea surface. Plastic waste was immediately suspected, because if turtles have eaten too much plastic it bloats their bellies and they can’t control their buoyancy.
Kai was given laxatives for two weeks to clear out her system, as well as anti-bacterial and anti-parasitic medicines and appetite-boosting vitamins. After six days no plastic had been spotted in the turtle’s stools and Kai was carried back to the sea to complete her recovery.
“It’s a very happy moment,” she said. “But sadly we can’t be sure that Kai won’t be back again if she eats more plastic. “It’s heart-breaking, but it’s reality. We just have to do much more to make sure the plastics don’t get into the sea in the first place.”
Caspar van de Geer runs the turtle hospital for the group Local Ocean Conservation at Watamu in eastern Kenya. He had demonstrated earlier how uncannily a plastic film pulsating in the water column mimics the actions of the jellyfish some turtles love to eat.
“Turtles aren’t stupid,” he said. “It’s really difficult to tell the difference between plastics and jellyfish, and it may be impossible for a turtle to learn.”
On a pin board he’s compiled a grid of sealed clear plastic bags like the ones used at airports for cosmetics. Here they contain the plastic fragments removed from the stomachs of sick turtles. Half of the turtles brought here after eating plastics have died. A huge table at the hospital is laden with an array of plastic waste collected off local beaches – from fishing nets and nylon ropes to unidentifiable fragments of plastic film.
Certainly, there has been a flurry of resistance from plastics firms to the bans occurring across Africa.
One UN delegate, who did not want to be named, told the BBC that journalists in some countries were being paid by the plastics industry to write stories about job losses following the plastic bag ban. In Kenya, a long newspaper report counted job losses from the sudden closure of a plastics plant. But it did not mention the jobs being created in alternatives, such as labour-intensive basketwork, which provides work for the rural poor.
But some governments are standing firm, and the meeting has witnessed individual nations declaring tougher action against single-use plastic bags on their own territory. South Africa and Cameroon are the latest to declare a tax on the thin bags which strew Africa’s fields and cities.
Nations with a near total ban include Mauretania, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mauritius, Zanzibar and Uganda.
Bangladesh imposed a ban in 2002 after plastic bags blocked drains and contributed to major floods. Sri Lanka and others adopted a ban for similar reasons, although in Mauretania a ban came because cattle were getting sick from eating plastic.
Whatever the motivation for restrictions, sea creatures will eventually benefit from a slackening in the tide of waste. The UN’s spokesman Sam Barratt told BBC News: “Of course we would have liked to have gone further, but this meeting has made real progress. There’s now a sense of urgency and energy behind the issue that we haven’t quite seen before. What is obvious, though, is that the UN can’t solve this problem on its own. We need to do it in partnership with governments, businesses and even individuals.”
Whilst the UN grinds slowly forward, one delegate said that the meeting had been really useful for ministers to share their experiences on action they had taken in their own countries. Laggards were learning from progressives, he said. He highlighted collaborative action from states along Africa’s Atlantic coast to clamp down on the waste that infests their seas. The UK may be brought into that partnership thanks to its British Overseas Territory of St Helena.