Every year, millions of tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans,[1] the equivalent of dumping one garbage truck of waste every minute. In a business-as-usual scenario, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean.[2] Plastic affects wildlife, contaminates fish stocks, and degrades the natural habitat. The plastic floats around the world with ocean currents, and researchers suggest that it can even be spread across national borders through the air. Marine plastic pollution is a classic example of an international cooperation problem that requires a global response.

NAIL report on the case for a new treaty

While global clean-up efforts are crucial, a sustainable solution also requires prevention. In order to ensure that plastic products do not enter the natural environment, all the plastic produced and sold will have to be collected and properly managed.

There is a need for a new international treaty to tackle the issue of marine plastic pollution.

On a global level, there are several legally binding instruments that pertain to the issue of marine plastic pollution. These can broadly be categorized as 

  1. Pollution-oriented treaties (UNCLOS, MARPOL, London Convention and International Watercourses Convention), 
  2. Biodiversity-oriented treaties (Convention on Biodiversity, UN Fish Stocks Agreement, Convention on Migratory Species)
  3. Chemicals-oriented treaties (Stockholm Convention, Basel Convention)

Several aspects of marine plastic pollution are indirectly regulated by these treaties, but none of them deal comprehensively with the problem. None of these treaties clearly formulate the vision of a plastic free ocean; none of them include an agreed global reduction target for marine plastic pollution; none of them stipulate a requirement for states to develop national action plans aimed at resolving the problem; and none of them include provisions for international assistance, financing mechanism or implementation support aimed at reducing mismanaged plastic waste or to conduct clean-up operations. Moreover, none of the existing international treaties include mechanisms for monitoring progress towards the goal of an ocean free of plastics, and there is currently no international scientific body in place aimed at promoting science-based policy solutions. This means that governments are not held accountable for the plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans.

If the international community is to succeed in turning the tide on marine plastic pollution, these shortcomings need to be addressed. A new and robust global governance structure should be put in place, along with clear legal commitments from states. The most effective way to achieve this would be to negotiate a new international treaty to regulate marine plastic pollution. Such a treaty will not by itself solve the problem—action is needed on multiple levels, employing a broad spectrum of political, legal and economic measures—but it is difficult to envisage how the problem can be addressed effectively without a dedicated legally binding framework in place. The problem of marine plastic pollution cannot be solved on a national level or through non-binding, voluntary measures alone. 

[1] Between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (Mt) for 2010, according to estimates by J. R. Jambeck, R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T. R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan, K. L. Law, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347, 768–771 (2015).

[2] World Economic Forum (2016) The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *