Stopping marine plastic pollution: a key objective of the IUCN Congress

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Plastic bags can remain intact for years in the marine environment. Industrially compostable certified plastic products are not a solution for waste, as they do not degrade effectively in the environment and continue to pose a threat to wildlife as they decompose. Credit: Eleonora de Sabata / Clean Sea LIFE

St David’s, Wales, Jul 1, 2021 (IPS) – Documented images of albatross chicks and sea turtles slowly dying from eating plastic bags and other garbage are etched in our consciousness. And yet our massive pollution of Earth’s seas and oceans, fueled by single-use plastics and disposable consumerism, is only getting worse.

Plastic debris is estimated to kill over a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals and countless sea turtles each year. Plastics, with all of their benefits and promises, have revolutionized societies and economies since their development in the 1950s, but today some 8 million tonnes end up in the oceans each year.

Plastic waste, which accounts for up to 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, breaks down into microplastics that enter the digestive systems of marine and land animals and humans. Invisible plastic is found in the water we drink, the salt we eat and the air we breathe. Experts are still working on long-term impacts, such as cancer and reproductive system disorders.

The fishing industry, nautical activities and aquaculture also leave a massive legacy in terms of ocean litter, poisoning and trapping of marine life.

Hasna Moudud runs a small NGO in Bangladesh, which works to protect coastal areas where vast rivers flow into the Indian Ocean, providing livelihoods and food for millions of people.

Her NGO, Coastal Area Resource Development and Management Association (Cardma), plants coastal trees, protects olive ridley turtles in a conservation hatchery in the Bay of Bengal and helps women in cottage industries, using cane grass to make rugs instead of plastic.

“The oceans are always neglected,” she told IPS. “Small NGOs like me are taking risks to save all we can of the fragile ecosystem that remains for our future generations.”

Plastic bottles and bottle caps are among the most common items found along the Mediterranean shores. Credit: Eleonora de Sabata / Clean Sea LIFE

But to combine the efforts of her NGO with those of others, Moudud says she is “praying” to attend the 2020 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille in September, where the government, civil society and organizations of Indigenous peoples from around the world will join the discussions to set priorities. and lead conservation and sustainable development actions.

Meeting every four years – with this Congress delayed by the Covid pandemic – member organizations of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, vote on major issues to shape humanity’s response to the conservation crises of the planet. This particular congress in Marseille offers in-person and virtual participation options, allowing those who cannot make it to Marseille for the full congress the opportunity to participate in the discussions and provide feedback.

The NGO Moudud is co-sponsor of the Congress Movement 022: “Stop the global plastic pollution crisis in marine environments by 2030.”

The general resolution goes to the heart of the issue of plastic waste. He notes that global production is expected to increase by 40% over the next 15 years from current levels of around 300 million tonnes and that the “predominantly disposable model” in the world means that more than 75% of plastics ever produced to date are waste “, in particular because the price of plastic on the market does not represent the total costs of its life cycle for nature or society”.

Recalling previous international efforts to set targets to end marine plastic litter, the motion calls on the international community to reach a far-reaching global agreement to tackle marine plastic pollution. This would involve, among other measures, eliminating the unnecessary production of plastic, in particular single-use plastic waste; recycling and adequate prevention of leaks into the environment; and public awareness campaigns.

Sunlight, salt and the pounding waves crush marine debris into plastic grains. Credit: Eleonora de Sabata / Clean Sea LIFE

Campaigners say previous international efforts to tackle plastic pollution have been toothless. Moudud is among those who want binding and enforceable measures, accusing big companies of what she calls “manipulative practices through sponsorship and malfeasance without helping to build the natural world.”

“No one is watching or holding polluters to account,” she said, calling for a toughening of the resolution. “I am deeply involved in everything IUCN does to help save the natural world and a sustainable way of life. “

Steve Trott, project manager for the IUCN member Watamu Marine Association, which tackles plastic pollution in its marine protected area in Kenya, said Motion 022 clearly spells out the threats posed by plastic waste to marine and coastal environments, economies, and human health and well-being. being.

“The Watamu Marine Association and Kenya-based EcoWorld Recycling are embracing IUCN’s call to action,” Trott told IPS.

By pushing circular economy initiatives, their NGO has created vibrant plastic value chains through partnerships between the hospitality industry and local communities, sponsoring beach cleaning and collecting plastic waste for recycling. This provides a second source of income for community waste collectors while local artists also recycle plastic waste.

Reflecting one of the main themes of IUCN’s membership structure bringing together civil society, indigenous peoples and government authorities, Trott says Watamu follows a “win-win model that can be replicated and scaled up, by sending a message “Act locally, think globally” message to inspire others “. He hopes to attend the Marseille Congress if all goes well.

Single-use items litter the world’s oceans. Credit: Eleonora de Sabata / Clean Sea LIFE

The plastic waste manufacturers index, a study by the Minderoo Foundation in Australia, identifies 20 companies producing more than half of all single-use plastic waste in the world. Some are state-owned and multinational companies, whose plastic production is financed by the big banks. The report notes that almost 98% of single-use plastic is made from what’s called virgin fossil fuels – plastic created without any recycled material.

Single-use plastics are the reason why fossil fuel companies are ramping up production as their two main markets for transportation and power generation are decarbonizing. By 2050, plastic is expected to account for 5-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Humanity possesses unprecedented levels of knowledge but also the responsibility that comes with it, knowing that the oceans are in the worst health since man began to exploit them.

Single-use plastics – and the estimated 130 million tonnes that are dumped worldwide each year – have dominated waste studies and discussions. Plastic bottles, food containers and packaging, and single-use bags are the four most common items that pollute the seas.

An element woven into similar narratives of how to tackle the world’s burning environmental problems – such as carbon emissions, loss of species and plastic waste – is the potential solution offered by the technology. Motion 022 refers to the need to invest more in environmentally friendly plastic waste collection, recycling and disposal systems as well as in forms of recovery.

A study by biologist Nikoleta Bellou at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon Institute focuses on inventive sea cleaning solutions to date, including floating drones. But his article suggests that it could take about a century to remove just 5% of the plastics currently in the oceans using cleaning devices, as plastic production and waste accumulates so quickly.

Campaigners welcome IUCN’s intervention on plastic waste pollution and the strong mandate that a successful and unanimous motion can convey to governments and international institutions. But they also warn against taking too narrow an approach to tackling marine pollution during Congress September 3-11.

Eleonora de Sabata, spokesperson for the Clean Sea Life project, co-funded by the European Union’s LIFE program, told IPS that the narrative needs to move from single-use plastic to single-use all. “Technology” has developed so-called “organic” plastics to replace certain plastics, but only to create a whole host of problems of their own.

“It’s the throwaway culture that creates problems, whether they are plastic or not. Greenwashing and shoddy leadership fill our single-use world, ”she says. Raising awareness by simply replacing single-use plastics with other single-use items, such as supposedly biodegradable bags and cutlery, is not the solution.

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