Image: Nareeta Martin (Unsplash)

In the time that it would take the average reader to read the following article, at least three garbage truckloads of plastic would have flowed into the ocean. This is based on statistics from 2016, since then the global plastic production has increased by an average of 11 million metric tons each year. 

Within the global ocean area, there are five main ocean ‘gyres’. These are large systems of circulating ocean currents which can carry plastic items across the ocean to a different region. In the centre of the Indian Ocean Gyre, plastic waste has collected and formed a ‘garbage patch’ thousands of kilometres long. Plastic debris is not only floating around the middle of the ocean but finds its way to land. A report surveying the Cocos Islands in the South East Indian Ocean region reported that an estimated 413 million pieces of plastic debris covered these islands. It is impossible to track where the plastic floating in the ocean or collected on coastal land originated from. Therefore, ocean plastic governance is a common problem requiring common action. 

Large items of plastic pollution which gather on beaches and collect to create large plastic patches can cause disruptions in tourism due to unsightly beaches. Additionally, birds and marine life can get caught in these items which can lead to injury or death. However, these macro items are not the only problem. Macro plastics degrade from UV light, wave action and wind into microplastics. Microplastics have already found their way into our food chain. Fish, shellfish and many other marine life unknowingly consume microplastics, onto which toxins attach, these are then absorbed into the animals fat and tissue which is later consumed by humans.

What can be done?

Individual level

The most effective way that an individual can reduce their contribution to ocean plastic is by refusing to contribute to the ‘throw away culture’. Single-use plastic is convenient. Unfortunately, half of all plastic produced worldwide is considered ‘single use’ and is used for an average of only 10 minutes. Eliminating single use plastic would thus eliminate half of plastic produced.

Another method of reducing ocean plastic on an individual or societal level is through plastic waste removal. Recycling can be a viable business option. Currently less than 10% of plastic worldwide is recycled, this is not only due to a lack of effective recycling systems but also because some plastic cannot be recycled by traditional methods. Some of this plastic is left in landfills, finds its way to the ocean or is incinerated. Incineration is an ineffective solution to deal with plastic waste, it releases toxic gases like Dioxins, Furans, Mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls into the atmosphere and uses copious amounts of energy. An alternative method to incineration which could help reduce the plastic pollution including that which cannot be recycled in traditional ways is through pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is a method of using a chemical reaction to turn plastic waste into fuel.

One innovative recycling business has had knock-on effects to reduce poverty and create employment. The Plastic Bank pays collectors in developing countries such as Haiti and The Philippines. The collectors receive payments for certain plastic items. This not only creates employment and reduces the plastic pollution in developing countries which do not always have effective recycling facilities of their own, but the collector can also receive credit for their work which can be used to buy cooking stoves and even to pay tuition fees, increasing the likelihood of childhood education in these areas.

Government level

States can impose domestic laws that could reduce the plastic production and use within their jurisdiction. Some countries have committed to end their contribution to the ocean pollution.  For example, Kenya has the most severe penalties, of up to $40 000- and 4-years imprisonment for the sale and use of plastic bags. 

In 2020, South Africa gazetted an amendment to the National Environmental Management: Waste Act to include Extended Producer Responsibility. The new approach would “significantly” decrease waste ending up in landfills, increase the country’s capacity to recycle and therefore contribute to the expansion of the country’s Circular Economy. This amendment requires manufactures and importers of certain products to increase their use of recycled materials and take responsibility for where their products end up after use. Unfortunately, the implementation for this amendment has been extended to May of 2021 due to calls by producers for more time. Although this new amendment will be a great step forward in South Africa’s contribution to the reduction of plastic waste, the extension of the implementation demonstrates the ultimate flaw of national legislation to fight a global problem. Governments are restrained by domestic politics. Many state economies have increasing unemployment rates and businesses are struggling to rebound from the COVID-19 lockdowns. Government’s decisions to implement regulations which might constrain business or cost consumers more will be criticised and could politically hurt their support and legitimacy, despite the positive effect these constraints may have on the environment. The sad reality is that some governments, especially during an election year, may not be willing to take the risk. International laws may be able to alleviate the pressure of individual government action.

International level

International law would be the most effective way to employ plastic governance. A review done by the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) confirmed that “no global agreement exists to specifically prevent marine plastic litter and microplastics or provide a comprehensive approach to managing the lifecycle of plastics”. 

Before considering a global agreement or law, it is important to take note of the current regional instruments already in place to tackle the issue. A report done by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) analysed and assessed all of these global and regional instruments and concluded that these play an important role in addressing and monitoring marine plastic pollution. Despite the great effort and relative success of these regional instruments, the report identifies challenges such as varied level of implementation of policies which is due to differing capacities and differing priorities of certain states.  Ultimately, the regional organisation of these instruments relies on willingness by member states to address plastic management issues. The report therefore recommends a global agreement which could promote and harmonise efforts by providing minimum standards, common goals and a comprehensive strategy. 

Recent ministerial declarations have demonstrated a political willingness to create such a global agreement. These include the Nordic Ministerial Declaration, Caribbean and Community and Common Market (CARICOM) St. John’s Declaration, The Durban Declaration, and the new European Union (EU) Circular Economy Action Plan, which all call for a legally binding global treaty. Additionally, Sustainable Development Goal 14.1 directly addresses this issue, calling to ‘prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution’. This goal is targeted to be reached by 2025. The significance of this problem is clearly acknowledged, a cohesive global action plan and implementation is now required.

Laura has a degree in BPolSci International Studies from the University of Pretoria and is currently completing a level 4 NALP paralegal diploma. She hopes to complete her honors in International Relations and pursue a career in the field of Public International Law and Human Rights. Laura is one of the permanent members of the writing staff at The Art of Politics.


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