The global scourge of ocean plastic pollution isn’t just killing off huge swathes of marine wildlife from endangered turtles to dolphins, whales and coral reefs. It’s also a clear violation of international law on the part of the countries that allow it to take place.
This is the startling conclusion of new report to be launched on Tuesday 20th February at the Ocean Plastics Crisis Summit in London, where Bianca Jagger – president and chief executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation – will be calling for urgent action to protect the world’s oceans from the blight of waste plastic.
“I was appalled to learn that there are some 150 million tons of plastic waste in the oceans today – billions water bottles, plastic bags, discarded fishing nets”, said Ms Jagger.
“We dump the equivalent of a large garbage truck of plastic into the oceans every minute – eight million tonnes a year. By 2050, without significant intervention, this plastic debris could weigh more than all the fish in the sea. And there is no way to retrieve most of these plastics and microplastics once they reach the ocean. “
“The grave threat to sea creatures, through choking and starvation, has been well documented recently. It has also been shown that toxic chemicals like persistent organic pollutants, that are already present in the sea from other sources, attach to plastic debris.
“The contamination is insidious: it makes its way into the marine food chain and is increasingly concentrated as it works up until assimilated by whales, porpoises, dolphins and even people in the fish we eat. No one knows what the long-term effects of this exposure are, but there is no doubt that we should be gravely concerned.”
“Is it acceptable that we defer action until the damage is irreversible? When it is already a flagrant breach of international law for states to allow this global contamination of our oceans to take place?“
The report’s author Oliver Tickell – a veteran environmental journalist and a former editor of The Ecologist magazine, added:
“Amid all the discussion and hand-wringing over ocean plastic pollution the fact that it is illegal has scarcely been mentioned. There are dozens of international laws, some applying globally, others to specific areas of sea and ocean, that require nations to protect the oceans from pollution and protect marine wildlife. Most of these refer specifically to pollution originating from land, to the problems of ‘marine debris’ and to waste plastic – and impose legally binding obligations on the states that have signed up to them.”
“Sadly, very few states are in compliance with these obligations they have committed to. One of those that could claim to be fulfilling its obligations is Norway, which is working hard to develop a zero-waste ‘circular economy’, and operates a deposit scheme for plastic bottles which is achieving a remarkable 97% rate of return. In the UK, by contrast, only about 57% of plastic bottles get recycled, and not even a third of our total waste plastic. And as is all too obvious a great deal of this plastic ends up on our streets, in our rivers and ultimately polluting the oceans.”
“The UK has also signed up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14, in which we have already promised ‘by 2025, [to] prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution’.”
“It is therefore regrettable that there’s nothing in the government’s new policies on waste plastic to show that it’s serious about meeting that 2025 target – all the more so since this obligation was strongly restated at last year’s UN Ocean Conference in New York. Was the UK listening?”
The report: International Law and Marine Plastic Pollution: Holding Offenders Accountable is written by Oliver Tickell and published by Artists Project Earth (APE). It may be viewed / downloaded from Dropbox.
Its author Oliver Tickell may be reached at email@example.com / 07423 318310.
To attend the Ocean Plastics Crisis Summit please contact Irene Crescenzi on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ocean Plastics Crisis Summit – at which Bianca Jagger and Oliver Tickell will be speaking, and at which the report will be launched – takes place on Tuesday 20th February at the Royal Geographical Society in London, from 6.30pm to 10.15 pm. Further information is available on the APE website: www.apeuk.org/.
Extra: additional quotes from Bianca Jagger
Ms Jagger continued: “The key problem is that plastics, which are a long-lived material, are primarily used for short-term purposes, particularly in packaging. Disposal, rather than recycling, is still the norm, and that is where the problem starts: In the UK barely more than half of the plastic we throw away is actually recycled.
“The recent announcement by the UK government aiming to ‘achieve zero avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042’ appears to signal future improvements, but the promise is far too vague and the time scale is far too slow.
“Wealthy countries also need to be far more engaged in the problem abroad. A recent scientific paper found that over 90 percent of marine plastic reaches the oceans through just ten major rivers, eight of them in the Far East and two of them in Africa.
“With so much plastic waste coming from poor and developing countries that lack adequate systems for waste collection and management, there is also a compelling obligation on rich countries like the UK to help the world’s poorest with both finance and technology transfer.
“Once again this is something we already committed to in the 1995 Washington Declaration. More than 20 years on, isn’t it about time we made good on that promise?”
Extra: background on international law and marine plastic pollution
International laws that apply to the UK on ocean plastic include UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires states to:
“prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source, using for this purpose the best practicable means at their disposal and in accordance with their capabilities … measures shall include, inter alia, those designed to minimize to the fullest possible extent … the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances, especially those which are persistent, from land-based sources, from or through the atmosphere or by dumping [and] shall include those necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life.”
The UK is also signatory to the OSPAR Convention, which applies to the North-East Atlantic. OSPAR requires the UK and its other 14 signatories to “take all possible steps to prevent and eliminate pollution and shall take the necessary measures to protect the maritime area against the adverse effects of human activities so as to safeguard human health and to conserve marine ecosystems and, when practicable, restore marine areas which have been adversely affected.”
It also says that “preventive measures are to be taken when there are reasonable grounds for concern that substances or energy introduced, directly or indirectly, into the marine environment may bring about hazards to human health, harm living resources and marine ecosystems, damage amenities or interfere with other legitimate uses of the sea’, and to apply the ‘polluter pays’ principle, “by virtue of which the costs of pollution prevention, control and reduction measures are to be borne by the polluter.”
The UK, among many other countries, is also signatory to the 1995 Washington Declaration on Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, in which they state as their common goal the “sustained and effective action to deal with all land-based impacts upon the marine environment, specifically those resulting from sewage, persistent organic pollutants, radioactive substances, heavy metals, oils (hydrocarbons), nutrients, sediment mobilization, litter, and physical alteration and destruction of habitat”.
Signatories also commit to “encouraging and/or making available external financing, given that funding from domestic sources and mechanisms for the implementation of the Global Programme of Action by countries in need of assistance may be insufficient”.
Extra: additional quotes from Oliver Tickell
Oliver Tickell continued: “Many states including the UK sign up to these international conventions but seem to have no serious intention of ever fulfilling their obligations. Yet many of these commitments are legally binding and in principle enforceable in the courts, such as the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea.
“The UK government’s promises in its 25-year plan for the environment to eliminate ‘avoidable’ plastic waste, to assume a global leadership role on marine plastic pollution, and to dedicate part of its international aid budget to tackling the problem are timely and welcome.
“But now it’s up to civil society to hold our government to its promises and to demand greater ambition. Even in the absence of formal enforcement proceedings, international law carries enormous authority. No government likes to be told that its actions or inactions are breaking its solemn and legally binding obligations.
“My main aim in writing this report is to energise campaigners in the UK and around the world to apply moral and political pressure on their governments to enter into full and rapid compliance with the laws and Conventions they are parties to. The oceans, and thus the future of life on Earth, depend upon it.”
“Millions of marine animals are being killed and poisoned by plastic waste right now, including endangered species like great whales, dolphins, sea turtles, albatrosses and other sea birds. Coral reefs are being put at risk by rafts of of plastic debris carrying deadly bacterial infections and other invasive species across the oceans – just when they are already under massive stress.
“We cannot become spectators to the slow death of entire marine ecosystems without demanding that governments take the serious, effective actions to which they are both morally and legally committed.”