Alliance of Small Island States want global agreement to stop plastic pollution in oceans

An estimated 11 million tons of plastic waste enters the seas and oceans every year.
An estimated 11 million tons of plastic waste enters the seas and oceans every year.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The 39-member Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) - which includes Singapore - has thrown down a challenge to the world to adopt a new legally binding global agreement on plastic pollution.

"Millions of tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into oceans every year," Antigua and Barbuda Ambassador to the United Nations Aubrey Webson tweeted on June 8.

"It is abundantly clear that the ad hoc approach is not working. We need a dedicated global instrument to guide urgent and transformative actions before it is too late."

Antigua and Barbuda is the current chairman of Aosis.

More than 120 countries have some sort of legislation regulating or banning single-use plastics.

In Africa, 34 of 54 countries have banned single-use plastics.

The European Union has also introduced a single-use plastics ban as well as an export ban on unsorted plastic waste.

Yet, the flow of plastic into the ocean continues, and is projected to nearly triple by 2040.

A key reason is that single-use plastic is cheap to produce.

An estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the seas and oceans every year.

Single-use bags, bottles, food containers and wrappers are the four most widespread items being dumped, making up almost half of this human-generated waste.

Just 10 plastic products, including fishing gear, account for three-quarters of the waste.

Analysts are optimistic about the prospects for global agreement, but worry that any global ban on dumping plastic waste into the oceans may be too late, and addresses only the waste, not the source.

It may be some years before a binding resolution from the UN General Assembly is adopted.

Earlier this month, Aosis passed a resolution on the issue, in which the grouping expressed deep concern over the widespread and devastating impact of plastic pollution.

"We have all seen the footage of marine animals entangled in it, or with stomachs full of it. We have seen rivers choke on it, and children's playgrounds surrounded by it," it said.

"Plastic is… a global problem in need of a global solution," it added.

"We urge all states to join us in combating plastic pollution, by committing to work towards a new legally binding global agreement on plastic pollution."

The UN has been slow to tackle the issue with the first conference on the oceans taking place only four years ago in 2017.

That produced a "call for action" to conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources.

The idea was to highlight the 14th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on life below water.

In September 2021, a first ever global ministerial conference on marine litter and plastic pollution, co-convened by Ecuador, Germany, Ghana and Vietnam, will take place.

Germany's Ministry of the Environment said it would "build momentum and political will to advance a coherent global strategy to end marine litter and plastic pollution with an aim to ensuring a future with clean seas".

Some see the Aosis resolution as a small but significant step in the process for global action.

"Everyone talks about eradicating poverty, which is the first SDG," a senior UN source told The Straits Times.

"There was no formal process to talk about SDG14. The 2017 conference started that."

The foot-dragging continued, however.

The UN's second ocean conference was supposed to be held in 2019, was postponed to 2020, postponed again to 2021, and yet again postponed to 2022.

It is due to be held in Lisbon, Portugal.

The kind of global instrument the Aosis wants, is thus at least a couple of years away.

A draft resolution will have to be tabled at the UN General Assembly, ideally by consensus, or if needed, by a vote.

That will start the process of negotiating the text, which could take two years or more.

"But my sense is that there is a certain momentum for ocean protection; it may not take so long," the UN source said.

It makes sense for Aosis to lead on this issue as its members are heavily impacted by plastic pollution that washes ashore from other places, says Ms Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of the non-profit The Last Beach Cleanup, which works with companies to reduce plastic pollution.

"There is no Plan B or Island B for small island states," she told The Straits Times.

"They have to keep demanding that the flood of plastic pollution reaching their shores be stopped before it starts."

"The only way to stop plastic pollution is laws and enforcement," she said.

"A global agreement can add another layer of pressure on global companies to stop selling some types of plastics. Relying on voluntary action by companies has created the mess we are now in."